FIRST Minister Arlene Foster has said if Sinn Fein is “playing a game of chicken” by calling for her to step aside over the flawed renewable heat incentive scheme then “they are wrong.”

Mrs. Foster has described the latest call for her to resign as “ludicrous” and conceded that Martin McGuinness “may well” now resign from the power-sharing Executive. 

Impartial Reporter: Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness says that Northern Ireland can govern itself

The scheme set up in 2012 under Mrs. Foster, the then enterprise minister, was designed to encourage businesses to switch from burning fossil fuels to wood biomass heating. 

But serious weaknesses meant the subsidies it offered were greater than the cost of the fuels which meant users could lawfully earn more money the more fuel they burned.

A proposal by Sinn Fein would see an independent panel investigation into the scheme take place which would include experts in accountancy, renewable energy and the civil service. 

During a meeting on Saturday Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams repeated his party’s position: that Mrs. Foster should step aside temporarily to allow an investigation into the scheme to take place. 

Impartial Reporter: Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams, with party colleagues, speaks to the media at the Stormont hotel in Belfast

 "If the first minister does not take the actions that society desires and deserves and which a sustainable process of change requires, then Sinn Fein will bring this ongoing and totally unacceptable state of affairs to an end,” he said.

But in an extensive interview on the scheme which is to published in The Impartial Reporter this week, Mrs. Foster said Sinn Fein must drop its “nonsense” call for her to resign.

“There are some elements that we can certainly work with [with Sinn Fein]. That’s the frustrating thing: we want to see an independent inquiry probably more than anyone because we have absolutely nothing to hide in respect of this.

“But they [Sinn Fein] are preventing that inquiry getting up and running because of their ludicrous demand that I have to step aside for four weeks. So it is they who are holding back the inquiry and that’s very regrettable and I hope they reflect on that now and take that nonsense out of the terms of reference and let us get on with an independent inquiry,” she said.

Impartial Reporter: Prime Minister Theresa May is greeted by First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness upon arrival at Stormont Castle in Belfast

As Sinn Fein hint at bringing the “unacceptable state of affairs to an end” there is speculation that Mr. McGuinness may in fact resign as deputy first minister sparking an early election. 

Asked if she thinks he will resign, Mrs. Foster said: “He may well do, he may well do.”

“What I say to him is this: if he is playing a game of chicken, if Sinn Fein is playing a game of chicken and they think we are going to blink in relation to me stepping aside they are wrong. I won’t be stepping aside. And if there is an election there is an election and we will be ready for that election, as the DUP always are.”

She added: “Unfortunately they [Sinn Fein] don’t seem to be getting the message. So just for clarity: I will not be stepping aside at the behest of Sinn Fein or indeed any other opposition party. I take my directions from the electorate and certainly not from Sinn Fein.”

The future of the political institutions appears to be at stake with many pondering a fresh election.

“An election would come about if either the first or the deputy first minister resigned and didn’t appoint a replacement within seven days,” said Mrs. Foster.

“So if Martin McGuinness decides ‘I am resigning’ and doesn’t appoint another Sinn Fein person to the role of deputy first minister within seven days then the secretary of state is to call an election within a reasonable amount of time. I would presume you would see an election within six weeks.”

Mrs. Foster has been blamed for the potential loss of almost 500 million as a result of the scheme. 

This newspaper asked her if she takes responsibility for what happened. 

“I take ministerial accountability very seriously from my time as minister for Enterprise.”

Asked again if she takes responsibility, not accountability, for the failures, Mrs. Foster replied: “No. Because at the time I was advised in a very particular way and that’s why I am keen for the independent inquiry to get underway so people can understand what happened at that time.”

She says there “has been a lot of smoke and mirrors” in recent weeks.

“Some people say we have lost £490 million. Well, we haven’t lost £490 million because that is the projected spend over 20 years into the future. When we talk about welfare reform and talk about an extra £174 million because of the dithering of the SDLP and Sinn Fein that’s money that has been lost to the Northern Ireland Executive. The £174 million that we lost for the dithering is the responsibility of the SDLP and Sinn Fein.”

Impartial Reporter: SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, pictured, and West Belfast MLA Alex Attwood met with Stormont's leaders earlier

The Fermanagh-south Tyrone MLA has been heavily criticised for her role as Minister during the scheme and her response to the controversy.  

“There hasn’t been a PAC finding, there hasn’t been an inquiry finding and due process seems to have completely gone out the window. And in fact what I am having to deal with is trial by media instead of actually fact finding and evidence based investigation. And that’s very regrettable because if a constituent came into me and said to me: ‘I have been found guilty without any evidence being looked at, without an inquiry, without any investigation’ then I would say that is entirely unfair and lacking in natural justice. 

“I think all of that points to the fact this is around trying to get a political scalp from Sinn Fein’s point of view, it’s about weakening unionism which I will not allow happen, from other political opponents, it’s about trying to weaken me and the DUP.”

But she hasn’t just faced criticism from outside her party, former DUP MLA David McIlveen described her handling of the scheme last week as “an omi-shambles.”

Asked to respond to her former Assembly colleague’s comments, Mrs. Foster said: “Of course, one is always hurt when people make such comments. I almost feel like he hasn’t stabbed me in the back, he’s stabbed me in the front because we never had a cross word.”

“He has to answer as to why he has taken this position. But it is to be noted that we ran four candidates in North Antrim and we achieved three seats and David was one whose fell by the wayside. I understand that he’s hurt and wasn’t returned as an Assembly member and one has to take that into consideration as well and that’s where I imagine this is coming from.”

Read our full interview with Mrs Foster on RHI in this week’s Impartial Reporter.