Belfast Telegraph

DUP rebel Jonathan Bell could return to UUP for looming election

By Claire McNeilly

Jonathan Bell is to be invited to rejoin the Ulster Unionist Party and stand as one of their candidates in the next election, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.

The Strangford MLA and former Enterprise Minister will almost certainly part company with the DUP after being suspended for his highly-publicised spat with party leader Arlene Foster over who was responsible for the botched Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI).

Mr Bell - who defected from the UUP almost 17 years ago - stoked the fires of the scandal in a televised interview with the BBC's Stephen Nolan.

He later said he would sue Mrs Foster after the now ex-First Minister made comments about him in another TV interview in connection with the 'cash for ash' controversy threatening to bring down the devolved institutions at Stormont.

An Ulster Unionist insider told the Belfast Telegraph: "Party officers are keen to talk to Jonathan about his future plans.

"He has polled well in the past and could be an asset to the party. If things work out, I expect him to be fighting the next Assembly election on an Ulster Unionist ticket."

Mr Bell defected from the Ulster Unionists to the DUP in 2000 - four years before his former friend Mrs Foster made a similar journey. At the time he was a councillor and had served as Mayor at Craigavon Borough Council, but resigned after growing dissatisfied with the leadership of David Trimble.

He was selected by the DUP as MLA for Strangford in 2010 - replacing Iris Robinson - and promoted to Enterprise Minister five years later, succeeding Mrs Foster.

On December 15 last year, shortly after the RHI scandal hit the headlines, Mr Bell broke ranks to accuse DUP advisors of delaying his plans to close down the controversial scheme that is threatening to run up a bill to taxpayers of hundreds of millions of pounds.

According to Mr Bell, the advisers - who deny any wrongdoing - secretly tried to "cleanse the record" of references to Mrs Foster.

Those alleged attempts to alter the papers were made "without my knowledge, without my consent", said Mr Bell, who added that the papers were revealed to him by a senior civil servant at the department.

He also recalled a meeting with Mrs Foster where he said she was "highly agitated and angry" and "shouted" at him.

But in a separate interview with Nolan, Mrs Foster hit back, criticising Mr Bell for his handling of the RHI scheme and alleging that the 46-year-old minister had been "very aggressive" and "used his physical bulk to stand over me" during a heated exchange.

Mrs Foster also made certain allegations about Mr Bell's behaviour during the course of the interview, relating to his conduct generally and during a meeting with her about the botched energy scheme.

She alleged that the Jonathan Bell who appeared in the TV interview "is not a Jonathan Bell that would be familiar to many of his political colleagues, to many of his civil servants that he worked with in the department, or to many in the business community".

The following day Mr Bell said he would take legal action against Mrs Foster.

He was suspended "without prejudice" by the party that weekend.

The DUP also accused the BBC of "falling for spin" from Mr Bell over the flawed green energy scheme which is now likely to prompt a snap election.

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