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RHI scandal: DUP advisor John Robinson 'stepping aside' from further involvement in botched scheme

John Robinson, special adviser to DUP economy minister Simon Hamilton, is stepping aside from any future involvement in the botched renewable heat scheme after failing to declare that his father-in-law has two RHI boilers.

The special adviser is a key member of the DUP's backroom team. He was formally the party's director of communications.

Mr Robinson said he was stepping aside to avoid the "accusation or perception of a conflict of interest".

In a statement to the News Letter on Wednesday the DUP said: "Minister Hamilton was aware of John’s father-in-law being a scheme recipient. Since neither John nor his wife had any role in the business nor received any financial benefit from it, no further action was felt necessary.

"No written declaration of interest was made to the department at the time as John felt there was no such conflict as he was not involved in any way in the application, the relevant business and received no benefit and all this occurred before he was appointed in June 2016.

"John regrets this in that it has allowed a situation to develop where there is a perception of a conflict."

Mr Robinson insisted the poultry farmer signed up to the scheme before he married his daughter and stressed he had never advised anyone to join the botched state-subsidy initiative.

Mr Robinson told the Press Association that neither he or his wife had any direct involvement with the business or RHI.

He said his father-in-law joined the scheme before he started to work directly with Mr Hamilton.

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On Monday, suspended DUP MLA Jonathan Bell used Assembly privilege to claim he was thwarted in his efforts to clamp down on the multi-million pound RHI overspend because two DUP special advisers "have such extensive interests in the poultry industry".

Mr Bell, himself a former DUP economy minister, named Mr Robinson and fellow DUP special adviser Timothy Johnston.

In response, the DUP branded Mr Bell's allegations as "outrageous, untrue and unfounded mud-slinging".

A party statement on Monday said: "Timothy Johnston has no interests whatsoever in the poultry industry and does not benefit or have any family members who applied to or benefit from RHI.

"John Robinson has no personal interest in the poultry industry. His family home farm have chicken houses but are not part of the RHI scheme and never have been recipients or applicants."

In response to specific queries from the Press Association on Tuesday, Mr Robinson said his father-in-law was part of the RHI scheme.

"I have never had any personal financial interest in the RHI scheme," he said.

"At no point have I ever advised anyone to join the scheme or sought to benefit in any way from it.

"I have two brothers who are poultry farmers. They are not part of the scheme nor did they apply to the scheme.

"My father-in-law purchased two 36KW boilers for his poultry business in May 2015, they were installed in July 2015 and he applied to the scheme on August 3 2015.

"This was before I was married in October 2015. At no time did we discuss any aspect of the scheme nor was I aware of his application to the scheme.

"Neither my wife nor I have ever had any role in the business nor have we received any benefit, financial or otherwise, from the business.

"I was appointed as an adviser in the Department for the Economy in June 2016. I was not involved in any aspect of the RHI scheme prior to taking up the post."

Mr Bell and senior DUP figures, including leader Arlene Foster, are at odds about the chain of events that led to cost controls being introduced into the widely over-budget scheme and its ultimate closure.

He was suspended from the party after making serious allegations against Mrs Foster and a number of party advisers in a TV interview before Christmas. His accusations were denied by all those he named.

The Strangford MLA's subsequent claims in an Assembly debate on Monday came at a time when Mr Hamilton is facing growing pressure to publish the names of all the beneficiaries of the RHI scheme.

The total RHI spend in Northern Ireland is estimated at over £1 billion over the next 20 years. The Treasury is set to cover £660 million of that, with Stormont landed with the remaining £490 million.

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