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RHI scandal: Praying privately is one thing, but this was like saying God was on Bell's side

By Fionola Meredith

Politicians prepare for difficult interviews in all kinds of ways. For some, it's an obsessive reading and rereading of their brief, for others it's an intense one-to-one with their closest advisers. Hillary Clinton famously asked a member of her staff to actually act out the part of Donald Trump before her difficult encounters with the now US President-elect.

But for Jonathan Bell it was a prayer session - right in the middle of a television studio - that was the precursor to his extraordinary interview with Stephen Nolan.

The former DUP minister was filmed hunched over in a chair while two other people, perhaps members of his church, laid their hands on his back and asked God to guide him in what he was about to say.

The face of the sound engineer, standing in the background, expressed some of the incredulity that many viewers were feeling. This was a most unusual way for a political interview to begin.

It's not that there's anything wrong with a politician choosing to pray before what was bound to be a challenging, demanding encounter with Nolan.

This would be the defining interview of Jonathan Bell's political life, and the allegations he was about to make were explosive.

The stakes were high, and the potential ramifications - not just for his own career, but for First Minister Arlene Foster's, for the party's special advisers, and indeed for the DUP as a whole - were enormous and unpredictable.

But most of us tend to understand personal prayer as something private. Something you might do away from other people, not in the full glare - literally - of television spotlights.

What struck me most forcibly was that Mr Bell must have chosen to allow this moment of prayer to be filmed, and subsequently broadcast.

That turned prayer from something private into something performative - part of the message he wanted to send to the watching public. He seemed to be claiming that he was the one with God on his side.

And God was repeatedly invoked throughout the interview with Nolan. "I came into this studio because my obligations to God to tell the truth are greater than my obligations to anybody else. You have no idea how difficult this is for me," said Mr Bell.

He said he would speak the truth "though the heavens fall". "I believe that God doesn't punish people who tell the truth, so let's see how it plays out. My only aim is that the truth is told, I have now told it," he added.

For some people, the extra helping of religiosity will have reinforced the impact of Mr Bell's claims, perhaps especially with evangelical Christians, among whom it is common to see fairly colourful acts of public prayer involving the laying on of hands.

For others, including those of different faiths and none, Mr Bell's prominent godliness will act as a turn-off, and may be interpreted as an attempt to sanitise and elevate his own actions and motivations, deflecting attention away from the unanswered questions in his narrative.

Call me a cynic, but why did Mr Bell hear the voice of the Lord asking him to tell the truth at the very moment when the media demanded answers about the renewable heat scheme?

Did he not get a similar call when he allowed - as he claims - his concerns about the disastrous scheme to be overruled when he was in ministerial office? In politics, as in life, timing is everything.

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