Jonathan Bell interview in full - transcript from BBC Nolan Show on RHI scandal
Speaking on The Nolan Show, in an interview broadcast on Thursday night, former DUP minister Jonathan Bell (JB) said he would "tell the public the truth" about the controversial Renewable Heat Incentive scheme.
Here is the full transcript from that interview with Stephen Nolan (SN):
JB: I have undertaken before God that I will tell you the truth and yes hundreds of millions of pounds has been committed and significant amounts of money has been spent. I am authorising every detail, every document, every Civil Service document that I signed, every submission that I signed to be made publicly available and to be examined exactly as the truth I now give you.
SN: And you are saying cos I am going to get into the detail here in a second and you are saying you believe this scandal was avoidable. Is that your position?
SN: Let’s start then when you became Minister that was May 2015. Day one. Were you aware of this?
JB: No. There was nothing mentioned there that was urgent.
SN: So how do you feel about that?
JB: It should have been closed on day one.
JB: Hundreds of millions of pounds have now been overspent which is going to have to be clawed back out of Schools, Hospitals and roads.
SN: So you believe there was an awareness in May that this was a problem.
JB: There should have been an awareness of the cost of the scheme that should have been brought to my attention as Minister with an urgency heading on it and to be immediately addressed.
SN: So that’s May. Let’s move now to June cos there was a significant event in June 2015 involving the permanent secretary Andrew McCormick. What happened?
JB: The Permanent Secretary, who let me say is a person of all the times I have worked with him is a man of the utmost integrity and one of the finest servants of the Civil Service that the public could ask for. He came to me and raised with me concerns over the scheme
SN: What did he say?
JB: That the scheme would overspend they weren’t sure by how much it was difficult to calculate.
SN: But was he expressing low level concern or was he very concerned or what was his demeanour?
JB: Significant concern with the scheme and the advice that I was being given was that we could manage this if we reduced the tariff.
SN: Just to be clear. When we are talking about closing this scheme – there are two parts to this scheme and for this section that we are talking about we are talking about closing the lucrative part of the scheme the part of the scheme where there was only one tariff being paid out to the public and the more you burned the more you earn. So why didn’t you close it?
JB: Because his explanation was that now these concerns were raised it takes like a month period to process a submission for me to address and that we would do that immediately we would take action on that immediately.
SN: Did you?
JB: And we did.
SN: So when was this put on record?
JB: There is a submission on record which they have allowed me to see but they won’t allow me to photocopy and that submission will show a date in the very early part of September signed by Jonathan F Bell that I sought to reduce the tariff.
SN: So you sought to close that part of the lucrative scheme?
SN: And you are the Minister in charge.
JB: Yes and my signature at the earliest possible date I believe is on a document currently with the Department of the Economy signed by me at the most immediate point I can, the most immediately practical point.
SN: When? What date
JB: September 2015
SN: So why didn’t they?
SN: Other DUP Spads involved themselves in the process.
SN: So these are special advisers
JB: Special advisers
SN: You hear us talk about Spads, these are special advisers, these are the key advisors within Government, they are senior people they are senior political advisers.
JB: I was then informed by my special adviser in the Department that other DUP Spads were not allowing this scheme to be closed.
SN: Now that is a big allegation
JB: It is a fact.
SN: Not allowing it to be closed.
JB: This is a fact.
SN: How have they the power?
JB: This is a fact which will not only be borne out by me but I have had discussions with my Permanent Secretary at the time and the explanation was that these other special advisers I had to act by what they term collective responsibility. In the words of my Permanent Secretary this is the way Government works. If the other special advisers are saying the scheme has to be delayed then you cannot you have to work in collective responsibility with them.
SN: Which Department are you talking about had the power to overrule you?
JB: The office of the first minister’s special advisers and the department of finance and personnel special advisers.
SN: Do you know for a fact that they influenced this scheme staying open?
JB: Here’s the fact that I do know which reveals it. The Deputy permanent secretary of my department Chris Stewart asked for something that was highly unusual and only done once in the five years that I sat in the Executive.
He asked to speak to the Minister as he is entitled to do to whistle blow on a one-to-one basis.
SN: What did he say?
JB: One to one basis.
He said the purpose of me being here today and for you not having your even own special adviser with you is Minister we have to advise you that without your knowledge the special adviser in your department has been asked by the other special advisers to remove references to Arlene Foster the First Minister and to the department of finance and personnel.
JB: I have spoken about this subsequently to the Perm Sec who has verified all of this and is prepared if asked to put it formally on the record in an enquiry.
JB: I have asked for those documents. I have asked for the changes that were sought to be made. When I said to him how can I see the evidence of what your deputy permanent secretary was telling me he said that there is an email trail. I cannot show you the email trail cos you are only entitled to see the final email but he said you will see the changes that there were to take out the references to the Office of the First Minister and the department of finance and personnel. Fact.
SN: Now why would they want to do that?
JB: That is for them to answer.
SN: Why do you think? You have told me you are going to tell me the truth from your heart today. Why?
JB: I can tell you the truth from my heart.
SN: Why would they want to do that?
JB: I cannot tell you what their thinking or motivation was. Personally I was deeply deeply hurt that as a minister the supposed number 1 in that department the person who the buck stops with that without my knowledge and without my consent this attempt was made. It took a whisteblower a person of considerable integrity to brief me as Minister that this was happening.
SN: So why was this scheme kept open?
JB: I have asked questions. Can I say
SN: What is your belief? Now let’s not come off this point. What is your belief of why this scheme was kept open because we are now going to be getting into the period where hundreds of millions of pounds of the money of the people watching this programme right now was committed to. I want you to tell me why do you believe this was kept open?
JB: I believe this scheme was kept open wrongly, inappropriately and when I commit to telling the truth I am not prepared to speculate why other people did what they did. Factually it is on the record I wanted to close the scheme on the 1st of October. The outside interference of the special advisers ensured that the scheme was kept open for another four weeks.
SN: Who? Who?
JB: They are going to have to detail that. My understanding from my own special adviser at the time and also from the belief from the Permanent Secretary was that the special advisers in the First Minister’s office and it was also the special adviser
JB: The name that was given to me in the First Minister’s office was Timothy Johnston the name that was given to me in the department of finance and personnel of which Arlene Foster was first minister was Dr Andrew Crawford.
SN: These are astonishing allegations that you are making and I want to go over this again. You are telling me that the special adviser to the First Minister she was the now first minister when she was the minister in the department of finance and personnel and you are telling me that special adviser attempted to keep this scheme open against your will.
SN: Timothy Johnston is one of the most senior people in the DUP. He is at the heart of your party. Timothy Johnston is the most senior adviser in the DUP and has been for a long time. What are you saying about him?
JB: I’m saying factually as the record will bear out. I sought to close the scheme on the 1st October to a lower tariff which would have left us in a manageable situation. I was informed by my special adviser I wouldn’t be allowed to do it.
SN: But here’s the implication of this. October 429 more applications. Your money a projected £250m. November scheme continued until November 17 this is the lucrative part of the scheme. The tier then changed after November but those first two and a half weeks 452 applications another £235m of your money committed over a 20 year period. £485m of your money and you are telling me that is because special advisers against your will kept this open.
JB: Yes and I can tell you more the permanent secretary has confirmed to me in recent days cos I said look why – could my instruction as Minister not be followed and he said it is the way that Government works in Northern Ireland that when the other special advisers interfere you must work by collective responsibility you would not have been able to do it on your own
SN: Have you evidence that the department of Finance & Personnel when Arlene Foster was the Minister knew about the soaring numbers in this scheme and the financial problems that this would cause?
JB: My understanding is that when my permanent secretary was telling me this that it is inconceivable that the permanent secretary in my view David Sterling would not have been telling the department of finance and personnel of the nature of this.
SN: And do you believe that the special adviser in Arlene Foster’s department at the time he was her special adviser do you believe he was acting with her knowledge?
JB: As I say I only speak factually and I wasn’t there for any of those meetings so I cannot comment. But what I can comment on is that my special adviser tells me that when a special adviser of a minister informs the department the rules are that they are taking it as the instructions of the minister.
SN: What about the Office of First Minister?
JB: Same applies. That’s what my permanent secretary is telling me. He is clear that the reason the scheme was delayed on the record was because of the outside influences and interferences of the DUP special advisers.
SN: Why didn’t you fight on behalf of the people in this country in October and November when you knew this was out of control because you were seeing the numbers by then. Right?
JB: I was not getting daily updates.
SN: So you had no notion in October and November that anything was wrong? That can’t be true because Andrew McCormick told you in June that he had concerns and he wanted it closed by September. Why didn’t you fight for us Jonathan?
JB: Can I please just say, don’t say things can’t be true. What Andrew McCormick told me in June is true. What I have told you is true. I was not given and there is a record of all of this I was not given a daily update or a weekly update.
SN: My point is you knew something was wrong.
JB: That’s true which is different
SN: And you should have had concern
JB: I had major concerns
SN: So why didn’t you shout about it?
JB: Because the Permanent Secretary told me at that time you are under collective responsibility as a Minister in this Government and as part of the ministerial collective responsibility you cannot breach those codes. What I did do at the time was I did raise my concerns. Those concerns were on the record and I was also told that I was overruled. The Minister of the Department was overruled by the outside special advisers.
SN: Arlene Foster has been saying over recent days she has nothing to hide and she is very much putting the spotlight on the officials those officials she says she passed the whistleblower’s concerns onto those officials and she says she has nothing to hide. Do you believe she is hiding something?
JB: I believe my officials when they tell me there is a documented email trail which shows an attempt behind my back without the knowledge of the Minister of the Department to cleanse the record. My officials are not only telling me at the time and by the way when they told me at the time I did inform my party leader Arlene Foster my deputy leader Nigel Dodds MP and Lord Morrow the Chairman of the party in writing of my concerns because it was so serious.
SN: You have known her a long time.
JB: Arlene and I go way back to 1989 when we were at Queens University as Students together. I think I was one of if not the first people to sign her nominations to be Leader. When she became leader, I told her she had my full support, she had 100% loyalty and service from me.
SN: Does she have it now?
JB: I am in a position of major and massive pain. The truth overrides anything else. Dr Paisley once taught us you must tell the truth though the heavens fall. This is not easy for me in any way.
SN: Ok so we are now at January 2016.
SN: And the reason why this period is critical is because the Treasury in this month had sent notice to the government in Northern Ireland that they were not picking up the bill for this Renewable Heating Scheme overspend. Correct?
SN: What happened in January?
JB: I went to close immediately.
JB: For the reasons you have just said. The Treasury are telling us.
SN: What advice are you being given?
JB: The advice from the Treasury or the advice from my Permanent Secretary?
SN: What did he say?
JB: It was to the effect that this is so significant it is unsustainable and needs to be closed immediately. I fully agreed with him on the basis of the evidence that I analysed and reviewed. In fact, what he said to me was you have to close the scheme and I am no longer prepared to deal with these outside influences. I am putting this on the record to you and what Andrew said to me was if you want me to continue the scheme as your principal civil servant you must issue me with a Ministerial Directive to keep the scheme open. I said to him Andrew I will guarantee you I will not issue you I never issued him ever with a Ministerial Directive to keep the scheme open I refused.
SN: And yet the scheme didn’t close Jonathan.
JB: What happened was I went away and was informed on a confidential business trip where I was trying to secure jobs my recollection was for Northern Ireland that the First Minister of Northern Ireland was ordering me to keep the scheme open.
SN: So by this stage because this is January 2016 by this stage Arlene Foster is the First Minister of our country you fly back from your trip abroad.
SN: What happens the next day?
JB: So I leave Canada from my recollection January/February it was just towards the end sorry I will need to give you the precise dates they are on the record and I refuse Arlene’s instruction to keep it open because I am refusing to give a Ministerial Directive because I am not going ask the Permanent Secretary to do something that is wrong in the face of all the evidence. I then got told I think I flew back from 8 o’clock from Canada Montreal to London got in the early hours of the morning about 5 o’clock 6 o’clock I was on the 9.20 flight back to Belfast. I went straight home cos I literally had flown all night I changed my suit and had a shower and I was to answer questions at 2 o’clock. I was ordered to appear in front of the First Minister before my question time. 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.
SN: What do you mean by that. Describe the scene when you are in her office. Describe it to me.
JB: I went in and sitting in front of her desk. At that stage I think there were two special advisers Stephen Brimstone and Richard Bullock in the room.
SN: Was she controlled was she
JB: 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.
SN: So I want you to give me more of a sense of what the atmosphere was like in that room.
JB: Hostile. Fear. It was abusive.
SN: It was abusive in what way? She is sitting down just talking to you.
JB: No no. She walking in and shouted at me that I would keep this scheme open. In fact she shouted so
SN: She’s shouting?
JB: Yes and she shouted so much that Timothy Johnston then came into the room.
SN: That’s her special adviser?
JB: Yes. And who was already there and Stephen Brimstone and Richard Bullock were already there and she said you will keep it open and to be fair I was fairly strongly telling her back no I wasn’t cos I will never break the law and if I am not prepared to do it I am certainly not prepared to instruct somebody else to do it.
SN: But the image that you are portraying on this programme is that our First Minister in her room was shouting at you.
JB: Voices raised ordering me to re-open the scheme. And it caused me a lot of problems because people know I have closed it and I turned to the special advisers and said you knew I was closing this what on earth are you thinking of now reopening it for two weeks and they sat and dropped their heads. They had no answers to me.
SN: Well you must have asked the First Minister Arlene Foster why. You must have said why.
JB: You see we are now about quarter past twenty past one. I have flown through the night. I haven’t been to bed in 24 hours and at 2pm I would appear at the despatch box for 45 minutes to answer questions and the determination to ensure that I wouldn’t confirm the scheme was closed and I was determined to tell her also that I would not and never have and I doubt I ever will issue a Ministerial Directive to tell a civil servant to do something which in my heart of hearts I believed to be wrong.
SN: There is of course a counter narrative to this which is as many other political parties were doing at that time demanding calling for the scheme to be kept open and Arlene Foster may very well have been of this view to be fair to her that people throughout Northern Ireland had invested in these boilers or had orders in place or had legitimate businesses many legitimate businesses to use this environmentally friendly product and that might be why she was insisting to you I want this kept open.
JB: This was a luxury that was not only not affordable but to fulfil what was legally contracted you were gonna have to take that money from the future budget and generations of Northern Ireland.
SN: You have got a problem.
JB: A major problem.
SN: No you have got a problem with my next question.
JB: Any question I’ll answer.
SN: You walked out of that room and you told the Assembly you told the public of Northern Ireland that the right thing to do was to extend that scheme, to keep it open that was from your mouth Jonathan Bell saying it.
JB: Because the way that government works
SN: You’ve a problem.
JB: No no. The way the government works is that you have all your arguments and all your difficulties behind closed doors but the way collective responsibility works is that no matter how fierce the row no matter how much the bullying or whatever it is that the final decision is then defended by all of the Ministers and that is collective responsibility.
SN: You said I have decided to defer closure for another two weeks. You said it. I. You.
JB: Under the orders of the First Minister
SN: You can’t stand up to Arlene Foster? You are standing up to her now.
JB: I can’t overrule it.
SN: But you can walk into that Assembly
JB: The regret that I ultimately have now when we are seeing terminally ill children being sent home from hospitals is that I didn’t resign. And I am sorry I didn’t resign. I am sorry now that hundreds of millions of pounds yes I was overruled yes I can claim collective responsibility yes the truth will back up everything I say but I am sorry I didn’t resign.
SN: Do you apologise to the people of Northern Ireland for the money which was committed to be spent over a 20 year period?
JB: I apologise for that for which I was responsible for. I am deeply most profoundly sorry for what has occurred.
SN: Do you think Arlene Foster your party leader owes the people of this country an apology?
JB: I think we all should hang our heads in shame for what has occurred.
SN: Should she?
JB: All of us.
SN: I am asking you a direct question about Arlene Foster.
SN: She is the First Minister Jonathan. She was the Minister in charge of the Department when this process was designed. You have gone over the processes. It is a direct question about Arlene. Do you think she owes the people of this country an apology?
SN: For what?
JB: For the fact that a scheme was allowed to run. For the fact that special advisers were allowed to overrule me and when I apologise, I am apologising for what I wanted to do which was to close it on the 1st October. I am not apologising for those who overruled me and here’s the rub we are hurting the most vulnerable people in Northern Ireland and that doesn’t make me sorry it makes me sick. I came into this studio because my obligations to God to tell the truth are greater than my obligations to anybody else. Dr Paisley was right tell the truth should the heavens fall on you. You have no idea how difficult this is for me. I have been told I will be ostracised, I will be demonised, my political career is finished.
SN: Are you involved in a coup to try and take Arlene Foster down as the First Minister and leader of your party?
JB: Nothing with God as my judge could be further from the truth. I am the boy that signed her papers . I believe I was one of the first to sign her papers. I campaigned for her. I have been involved in nothing other than telling the truth on what has occurred.
SN: What is your message to Arlene Foster now?
JB: I think the situation is so significant that you first of all have to deal with a major problem you can’t stick a plaster over a gaping wound and you deal with it by means of a public enquiry.
SN: During that time when that investigation that you are asking for is happening if indeed it does happen do you believe Arlene Foster should step aside as the First Minister of our country while that investigation is being conducted?
JB: I believe that people have to act according to their conscience before God.
SN: What do you believe will now happen to you within the DUP when this interview is broadcast?
JB: I have no idea. My only aim is that the truth is told. I have now told it.
SN: You are a family man, you have children. You must have thought of the implications of doing this interview.
JB: I have talked with my wife. I do talk with my children and given the level of exposure and all the criticism that comes with that, it will not be easy but my wife told me this morning Jonathan tell the truth please tell the truth. I have now done it.
SN: You prayed Jonathan before this interview.
JB: I did.
SN: Faith and God is clearly very important to you.
JB: I am a very poor Christian but I have got a great God.
SN: Why are there tears in your eyes?
JB: Because this is difficult. Because hospitals in Northern Ireland will not be built. Because terminally ill children are being sent home. Children that are dying are coming into our hospitals and they are sending them home or telling them they have to die 40 miles away from their house. There is a ward in the Ulster Hospital and that ward is closed. Do you think I can sit back and not tell the truth. Not when God has told me to tell the truth. And Dr Paisley was right. Tell the truth should the heavens fall on you. So deal with me as they will.
SN: Jonathan Bell thank you.