RHI scandal: Arlene Foster's ex-aide Crawford resigns
A senior DUP special adviser caught up in the bungled Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme has resigned.
Dr Andrew Crawford, an aide to former First Minister Arlene Foster, stepped down from his post yesterday.
News of Dr Crawford's resignation came just minutes after Sinn Fein Finance Minister Mairtin O Muilleoir ordered a public inquiry into the RHI scheme, the mismanagement of which sparked the collapse of the Executive.
Dr Crawford is the first senior figure from the party to resign as the political storm over the 'cash for ash' scheme continues.
His role in the scheme had come under scrutiny this week after senior civil servant Dr Andrew McCormick told Stormont's Public Accounts Committee (PAC) he believed Dr Crawford was behind the decision to keep the RHI initiative up and running longer than it could have been.
Dr McCormick - who is now permanent secretary at the Department for the Economy - told the PAC he believed Dr Crawford was exerting influence on his successor, DUP special adviser Timothy Cairns, at the time discussions were under way to impose caps on the incentive in 2015.
Dr Crawford denied the civil servant's claims, saying he had offered only "informal advice and assistance" as a colleague to his successor in the department, and was not acting on behalf of either the Finance Minister or the DUP.
In a statement issued following his resignation, Dr Crawford said had did not want to become a "distraction" from the issues facing Northern Ireland, and insisted he had acted with "complete integrity".
"In light of the allegations made at the Public Accounts Committee yesterday I believe it is appropriate that I step back from my position in government and resign as a special adviser," he said.
"I am conscious I have become the focus of the story.
"I want to see a full and independent inquiry set up immediately so that it will become clear that at all times I acted with complete integrity in all that I did.
"I will be happy to give a full account of all of my actions during this period to the inquiry and for due process to take its course."
His departure was announced by Mrs Foster in the Great Hall at Stormont. The outgoing First Minister said she had "regretfully" accepted Dr Crawford's resignation,
"I have this afternoon been notified that Dr Andrew Crawford has resigned as special adviser in the Department of Agriculture," she said.
"Andrew, of course, has been a very faithful servant not only to this party but the people of Northern Ireland through his work as special adviser in the various departments he has worked in.
"Andrew has felt that given what occurred yesterday, and indeed today, that he was becoming a distraction to the important work not only of his minister, but indeed he was becoming the story.
"Anybody who knows Andrew Crawford knows that he is a very private person and he certainly didn't want to become the story.
"He has resigned and I have accepted his resignation regretfully, I have to say. However, we are now in a position where we have a public inquiry set up, and therefore those of us who need to go to that inquiry will go to that inquiry. Due process will happen, and justice will prevail."
In a statement issued on Friday DUP Deputy Leader Nigel Dodds said Dr McCormick's evidence to the PAC made the "picture much clearer".
He said the looks forward to the "truth being displayed fully in the public inquiry".
Mr Dodds said: "It raises serious questions about why the Opposition parties and sections of the media sought to blame Arlene Foster for the RHI debacle. That campaign of vilification has had no basis in fact.
"During the Public Accounts Meeting meeting Dr McCormick made clear there is no evidence of wrongdoing by Arlene Foster, and that the failings in the design and operation of the RHI scheme were the responsibility of the civil service. Arlene Foster has made those points repeatedly and they have now been vindicated.
"It is clear that only a public inquiry can establish the full facts behind the RHI debacle. Arlene Foster has been pushing for an inquiry since mid-December.
Mr Dodds continued: "It is important that the public hear all the facts in relation to this matter. The focus now also shifts to the officials in the Department. The disclosure that officials in the Department may have tipped off the industry that RHI cost controls were planned in 2015 is of the utmost seriousness and needs rigorous investigation. If true, this will undoubtedly have been a major contributory factor behind the spike in applications.
"Furthermore, Dr McCormick has rebutted details of the account given to the media by Jonathan Bell. This comes on top of the rebuttals issued by the Department and given to the Assembly last month. We look forward to a detailed BBC 'fact check' on the Bell allegations that it reported so prominently.
"The facts are there and it shows that Arlene Foster has been honest and acted with great integrity. The public want the truth rather than cheap political point scoring and media frenzy based on a distortion of the facts."
The total RHI spend in Northern Ireland is estimated at over £1 billion over the next 20 years.
The Treasury is set to cover £660m of that, with Stormont having to fork out the remaining £490m.
Dr Crawford, the son of a farmer from Beragh in Co Tyrone and former employee of the Ulster Farmers' Union, had earlier revealed his poultry farmer brother was a recipient of payments under the RHI scheme.