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BBC's Nolan's Jonathan Bell interview a compelling, incendiary and bizarre TV blockbuster that had us gripped

By Fionola Meredith

Stephen Nolan's interview with Jonathan Bell appeared on television, rather than being broadcast on radio, because Nolan wanted the public "to see the whites of his eyes".

To be fair, it was worth the wait. What we witnessed was a bizarre, explosive, compelling encounter that began with the former DUP minister being prayed over, hands laid on his back, a plea sent Heaven-wards that the Almighty would guide Mr Bell in what he was about to say.

A bemused sound engineer looked on in the background.

This isn't the way that most political interviews begin.

God was a very definite third presence throughout the interview, as was Ian Paisley, whose words Mr Bell invoked repeatedly, and with tearful feeling: "Tell the truth, though the heavens fall."

Clearly Mr Bell saw himself as a martyr for the truth, sacrificing his own political career and ambitions in order to expose the alleged shenanigans behind the renewable heating scheme.

<< Listen to Mrs Foster's full interview >>

Both God and his wife had told him to talk, he said. And his claims were dramatic: DUP special advisers (Spads) - whom he named - intervening to prevent the scheme from being closed; a "highly agitated and angry" Arlene Foster ordering him to keep the scheme open.

Nolan asked Bell why he didn't speak publicly about his concerns when he was still in ministerial office. "Collective responsibility" was his answer - the rules of government meant he couldn't act on his own.

He said that he regretted now he didn't resign at the time.

For all the heightened passion, Mr Bell gave a confident and assured performance, leaning back in his seat, measuring his words carefully, with many dramatic pauses. When he named the Spads, he raised his chin defiantly. The only hint of nerves that I could detect was an occasional tremor in his right foot.

When the interview came to an end he heaved a big, rueful sigh - whether of relief, of triumph, or of dread, it was impossible to tell.

Then it was Mrs Foster's turn to respond to Mr Bell's allegations, which she heard with a face like a Lurgan spade, as they say. And boy did she come out fighting.

"Plenty of people know exactly what Jonathan Bell is like", she said - and she wasn't referring to his tender, prayerful side.

Mrs Foster claimed that many female colleagues felt intimated and bullied by Mr Bell, and she said she'd felt intimidated by him herself.

She described him as "a very aggressive individual".

This hour of extraordinary television felt like the opening to a big-money blockbuster.

Will there be a Christmas cliffhanger next week?

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