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DUP braced for shock RHI revelations as Jonathan Bell says: 'There is much more to come'

Party rebel says previous claims just 'tip of the iceberg' as he attacks Arlene Foster for lacking 'strategic thinking' of Robinson and 'charismatic leadership' of Paisley

By Suzanne Breen

Former DUP MLA Jonathan Bell is set to hand over a series of explosive emails and recordings to the public inquiry into the 'cash for ash' scandal.

In an exclusive interview with the Belfast Telegraph last night, the rebel DUP politician said the material he had so far released was "only the tip of the iceberg", and warned "there is much more to come".

Mr Bell, who is contesting the Assembly election as an independent in Strangford, spoke of the huge toll that his battle with his party's leadership over the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme had taken on himself and his family.

He said that comments about him by Arlene Foster, which are now the subject of legal action, had made it "the most painful and challenging time of my life".

He also told how his wife and two children had been "very upset" by the former First Minister's remarks.

And he claimed that Mrs Foster lacked the "brilliant strategic thinking and forensic ability" of Peter Robinson and the "charismatic leadership qualities" of the Rev Ian Paisley.

Mr Bell was speaking as he launched his election campaign with the slogan 'Time for the Truth'.

He was accompanied by veteran Strangford DUP member Charlie Simmons, along with a former soldier and campaigner for Army veterans.

The former Enterprise Minister said the 'cash for ash' scandal was far from over, and that he would be releasing explosive emails and detailed records to the public inquiry chaired by retired judge Sir Patrick Coghlin.

"I have a volume of material waiting for him," he added.

"I kept detailed records of what occurred when I was a minister, and I'm looking forward to revealing all to Judge Coghlin.

"What has been revealed to date is only the tip of the iceberg. There is much, much more to come."

Mr Bell claimed that in recent months, the DUP under Mrs Foster had departed from its previous style of leadership.

"The leadership I have seen is very uncharacteristic of the DUP," he said.

"It bears no resemblance to the charismatic leadership of Dr Paisley or to the brilliant strategic thinking of Peter Robinson.

"During this crisis I doubt that, had Arlene Foster availed of the wealth of experience and forensic ability that Peter Robinson can offer, she would be in the situation that she is now facing. This whole thing could have been handled very differently had more wisdom and sensitivity to people been displayed."

Mr Bell said that he was still seeking clarity from the DUP on why he was suspended.

"I was sent a very short, terse email suspending me," he added.

"My lawyers have written to the party chairman, Lord Morrow, seeking an explanation and stating that there hasn't been due process, but I haven't received a response."

The former MLA said that he was defending his seat in Strangford as an independent candidate because the DUP would not nominate him.

But he insisted that, apart from his stance on RHI, he had no disagreement with the party.

"I stood on the DUP manifesto nine months ago and I stand on the same manifesto today," Mr Bell maintained. "I haven't changed. I've never stopped being DUP."

He insisted that he had never considered standing for any other unionist party and had not held talks with UUP figures about joining the party.

Mr Bell stressed that events after his RHI revelations had made it an "immensely tough time" for him. "I've had sleepless nights but it has been even harder for my family," he explained. "My wife Lisa, who is a nurse, has found some of the allegations that have been made about me very painful.

"My teenage children, Andrew and Emma, have had to listen to the abuse that has been levelled at their father.

"But when the chips were down, my family were with me. They have been my rock and I don't for a second regret speaking out."

Mr Bell told how returning to Stormont after his sensational interview with BBC broadcaster Stephen Nolan had been difficult.

"The huge DUP team swept down the stairs while I entered the chamber with nobody by my side," he said.

"But I remembered a poster of a female farm labourer standing with a rifle in Ulster in 1914. 'Deserted! Well - I Can Stand Alone' it proclaimed, and that inspired me."

Mr Bell said that being ostracised by some of his DUP colleagues "wasn't a pleasant experience", but he claimed that many in the party had privately supported him.

He is a member of the same Orange lodge - LOL 747 Young Men's Christian and Total Abstinence - as DUP MP Gavin Robinson and Education Minister Peter Weir.

"I still count them both as my friends," Mr Bell said.

"Peter and I go back almost 30 years to our time as Queen's students.

"Gavin was my Spad (special adviser) in OFMDFM and he is an enormously talented person."

Mr Bell said that he appreciated the "great kindness" of former DUP East Belfast MLA Sammy Douglas, who had shaken his hand at Stormont when some others had ignored him.

The rebel DUP politician said that the criticism he had faced for praying with his father on camera before his Nolan interview was unfair.

"We didn't know we were being filmed by the BBC, we didn't give advance consent for that," he said.

"After the interview, Stephen Nolan asked permission to broadcast the prayer.

"My father and I discussed it and agreed to it so long as it wasn't trivialised. The idea that it was some sort of orchestrated theatrics is just wrong."

Mr Bell claimed that he had been inundated with support from his constituents.

"The public respects a whistle-blower," he said.

Strangford is an ultra-competitive constituency and he will be vying for the unionist vote with three DUP and two UUP candidates - including Mike Nesbitt - among others.

Mr Bell said he had 25 volunteers signed up to canvass for him.

"I will have the whole constituency, whereas the DUP gave me only four out of 26 polling stations last time," he stated. "We're facing a mammoth task - over 40,000 houses to canvass in just three weeks - but we'll give it our best shot. The electorate must decide if I did the right thing on RHI."

Mr Bell was accompanied by veteran DUP member 78-year-old Charlie Simmons, who also sits on the executive of the Pensioners' Parliament.

"When my brother was sick, Jonny got him money to get a new carpet and he visited him in hospital," Mr Simmons said.

"My brother died, but myself and my family never forgot what Jonny did. I'm glad he spoke out on RHI. I'm disappointed in the DUP and I think Arlene should have stood down temporarily.

"I don't know how long I've left in the DUP now I'm supporting Jonny, but I know it's the right thing to do."

Another member of Mr Bell's team is Richard, a former British soldier from Newtownards who has served in Northern Ireland and the Middle East.

He asked that his surname not be used for security reasons.

"Jonathan Bell has supported our campaign to help veterans get jobs," he said.

"And I also admire what he did on RHI.

"Members of the Armed Forces put themselves at risk all the time, but it's rare for a politician to stand up and be counted."

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