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First Minister Arlene Foster blocked attempts to shut down scheme that could cost taxpayer £400m, claims DUP's Jonathan Bell

By Suzanne Breen

DUP First Minister Arlene Foster over-ruled her own minister from immediately shutting down the Renewable Heating Incentive (RHI) scheme which could cost the tax-payer an estimated £400m, it was claimed last night.

Mrs Foster's former ministerial colleague, Jonathan Bell, made a series of explosive allegations to the BBC and said that Mrs Foster should apologise to the people of Northern Ireland for her handling of the 'Cash for Ash' scandal. The DUP leader has strenuously denied his claims and has accused the former Enterprise Minister of acting aggressively towards her in a stormy meeting.

She claimed that he was making the allegations to mask his own failings over the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme.

The Strangford DUP MLA, who seems set to be imminently expelled from the party, said that civil service documents would support his account. He called for a judge-led public inquiry into the affair.

In an extraordinary interview with broadcaster Stephen Nolan, Mr Bell said that matters between himself and Mrs Foster came to a head during a stormy meeting earlier this year after he had been informed that she wanted to keep the catastrophic scheme open for another two weeks. He said that he initially refused her instruction.

"I was ordered to appear in front of the First Minister ... in the strongest terms both in volume and in force Arlene Foster as First Minister overruled me and told me to keep the scheme open," he said. "She was highly agitated and angry because I had been refusing the whole way for the last period and telling them I wasn't going to do this."

He said there was a "hostile" atmosphere of "fear".

He added: "She (came) walking in and shouted at me that I would keep this scheme open."

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

Mrs Foster strenuously denied Mr Bell's claims. She claimed that he was the one acting aggressively in the meeting - something which she alleged was a character trait.

"He will try to portray himself in a particular way this evening, but plenty of people know what Jonathan Bell is like," she stated.

Regarding the meeting, she said: "He was very aggressive with me and I have a witness on how he spoke to me.

"He used his physical bulk to stand over me in quite an aggressive way. The Jonathan Bell that appears on your programme is not Jonathan Bell that would be familiar to many of his political colleagues and many of his civil servants who worked in his department and many in the business community."

Mrs Foster also alleged that Mr Bell was the one who delayed keeping the high tariffed scheme in place.

"I am bemused as to why he would leave it open for such a period of time," she said.

The DUP leader denied that she or her predecessor, Peter Robinson, tried to keep the high tariffs running.

"He (Mr Bell) took the decision to leave it open for that period of time," she said.

She said there was no evidence that DUP special advisers (Spads) tried to influence Mr Bell and claimed that was a "distraction" being put forward by him.

The Spads accused of seeking to delay the tariff change have also rejected Mr Bell's claims.

The Strangford MLA alleged that DUP advisers attempted to remove her name from documents linked to the catastrophic scheme. Mrs Foster said that if papers were altered "it wasn't on my say-so".

Mr Bell said that DUP spads, Timothy Johnston and Andrew Crawford "were not allowing this scheme to be closed" as costs were spiralling out of control in autumn 2015. He claimed that an email trail existed to prove attempts to alter official documents and that this was revealed to him by a senior civil servant in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment.

He said that the two most senior civil servants in that department were prepared to put evidence of the alleged interference "formally on the record in an inquiry".

Mr Johnston and Dr Crawford categorically denied Mr Bell's allegations and said they never sought to keep the RHI scheme open against his wishes. They maintained that their roles were simply "to offer advice" and not to "influence any decision".

The Strangford MLA also claimed to the BBC that, due to the importance of the RHI issue, he had put his concerns in writing to Mrs Foster, DUP deputy leader, Nigel Dodds, and the party chairman, Lord Morrow.

Another Spad Andrew Crawford of the Finance Department, who had previously worked with Mrs Foster in Enterprise, also denied seeking to keep the RHI open at the higher tariff against the minster's wishes.

Another two DUP Spads - Richard Bullick, and the recently-resigned Stephen Brimstone - both denied seeing any heated exchange between the Mr Bell and Mrs Foster.

Senior civil servants Andrew McCormick and Chris Stewart did not respond to requests for comment.

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