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RHI scandal: DUP reveals the papers it claims show Bell was in wrong on Arlene Foster's role

Economy Minister Hamilton releases documents about crisis-hit scheme, while McGuinness gives warning to First Minister over statement

By Suzanne Breen

The DUP has said that Jonathan Bell's account over Stormont's botched energy scheme has been seriously undermined by official documents it released last night.

In an unprecedented development, Economy Minister Simon Hamilton published the government papers ahead of the Assembly meeting for today's emergency debate on Arlene Foster's role in the 'cash for ash' scandal.

In an explosive BBC interview with broadcaster Stephen Nolan last week, Mr Bell claimed that DUP special advisers had attempted to "cleanse" official records so her name was not linked to the catastrophic Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI).

But Mr Hamilton alleged that the documents he released showed that the Strangford MLA's version of events seriously varied from the facts.

Mr Bell did not comment on the claims by the time of going to publication last night.

The Assembly has been recalled from Christmas recess to debate the financial scandal which is set to cost the tax-payer an estimated £400m.

Mrs Foster faces an SDLP no-confidence motion. And Sinn Fein, which until now has been restrained in its criticism of the First Minister, will bring its own proposal, calling for her to temporarily stand aside to facilitate an independent investigation.

In a statement yesterday, the DUP said it supports "the need for an independent investigation, free from partisan political interference, to establish the facts around the RHI scheme", but it didn't say that this should be judge-led, as its critics are demanding.

The party also announced that it had suspended Mr Bell for giving an interview to Mr Nolan without its permission.

Releasing the papers, Simon Hamilton hit back at Mr Bell's claim that a whistle-blower civil servant had told him that references to Arlene Foster had been removed from a document as the ending of the RHI scheme was being considered last winter.

Mr Hamilton said: "He cited a senior official from my Department, Chris Stewart, as a 'whistleblower' who had alerted him to this matter.

"This was a very serious allegation, and naturally received extensive media coverage. I requested full transparency from my Department as a matter of urgency, including the release of relevant paperwork.

"I am publishing that documentation, together with a note for the record prepared by Mr Stewart with input from Departmental Permanent Secretary Andrew McCormick. I am satisfied that Mr Bell's account is seriously at variance from the facts." The note from Mr Stewart, in response to the claims, states: "The submission as finalised was wholly factual: the omission of the reference to the engagement with OFMDFM (Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister) in no way altered the actions to be taken."

Note from Chris Stewart, deputy permanent secretary, part 2
Note from Chris Stewart, deputy permanent secretary, part 2

Mr Hamilton said: "As detailed, this documentation involves the drafting and redrafting of a Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment submission regarding RHI closure in 2016. There was no 'cleansing' of records, as both drafts are recorded and retained."

The DUP Economy Minister said that the re-drafting was undertaken by Mr Bell's own special adviser, Timothy Cairns.

"It deleted a specific reference to OFMDFM being involved in discussions in early 2016 on the closure of RHI," he said.

Note from Chris Stewart, deputy permanent secretary, part 3
Note from Chris Stewart, deputy permanent secretary, part 3

"This was not done on behalf of or to the benefit of First Minister Foster.

"As the documentation shows, this OFMDFM involvement helped secure the closure of RHI in February 2016 -earlier than the date originally signed off on by Minister Bell.

"To suggest this was a cover-up is to ignore the facts. The involvement of the First Minister and Deputy First Minster to bring forward RHI closure was in the public interest and the original draft made this involvement explicit."

Mr Hamilton said that these deliberations andsubmission preparations in early 2016 "were on the closure date for RHI. They were not on the separate2015 decision regarding the introduction of RHI cost controls". But TUV leader Jim Allister last night said that the documents published far from cleared Mrs Foster and DUP special advisers.

"The DUP may attempt to spin this as 'civil servant doesn't back up Bell' but I don't view the documents released as resolving the matter one way or the other.

"Yes, there are parts in conflict with Mr Bell's account. But the documents seem to confirm that it was OFMDFM calling the shots and not DETI."

Calling for Mrs Foster to stand aside for "an independent and robust investigation" to take place, Martin McGuinness said: "The current crisis is not about party politics. It is not an orange or green issue.

"It is about restoring the credibility of the power-sharing institutions and dealing with incompetence and allegations of corruption and abuse."

He claimed that a statement, which Mrs Foster plans to make to the Assembly today, didn't have his "authority or approval as Deputy First Minister".

He added: "We have told the DUP this. If she speaks this will be in a personal capacity and not in her role as First Minister. There is no credibility in an inquiry established solely by the DUP or in the selective release of some documents by DUP departments. If the DUP does take a unilateral approach, disregarding the authority and joint nature of the Executive Office ... this will have grave consequences."

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