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Bell makes jaw-dropping allegation that Spads are decision makers in DUP


By Laurence White

Former DETI Minister Jonathan Bell who was suspended from the DUP after his explosive TV interview about the RHI scandal was centre stage at the inquiry into the green energy scheme which burned a huge hole in the public purse because of lack of cost controls.

He claimed he was "just one boy" facing multiple attempts to smear him, obviously by former colleagues. Whatever the truth of that allegation, he spread his net widely in claims of inappropriate behaviour by a number of figures within the party and even managed to include the former head of communications in the Executive Office David Gordon and Sky News' Ireland correspondent David Blevins.

Mr Bell told the inquiry that Mr Gordon had written a note describing the minister as a "monster" who had been created by former DUP leader Peter Robinson who should be "put to sleep".

It may have sounded a bit like a Mafia threat the way Mr Bell told it, but when the context is examined it really just means that he should be told to stop smearing the party.

Sky News was quick to vehemently deny that Mr Blevins, himself a man of strong Christian values, had advised the DUP to attack Mr Bell on his Christian values - a strange tactic in a party renowned for its fundamental Christian beliefs.

But the main target of Mr Bell's ire were the DUP's special advisers or Spads. One of his allegations was that the party broke the protocol for appointing its Spads. He was given Timothy Cairns, he said, but agreed to sign a letter that several candidates had been considered and that he accepted Mr Cairns.

But he was decidedly unhappy at a breakfast meeting in London when sharp words were exchanged between the pair. This was witnessed by DETI's then permanent secretary Andrew McCormick who said he had never heard a minister spoken to in that way before and who, along with other civil servants, decided to leave the table as the exchange developed, feeling it was something they did not want to be part of.

But it was the public who were reading the reports from the inquiry or watching the drama unfold live who were really left open-mouthed by the evidence being given.

Few apart from political anoraks really know what Spads do. They were aware from previous publicity that they were really very well paid - up to £92k - and were hired for their expertise and the depth of the advice they proffered.

But according to Mr Bell these unelected party officials made many of the policy decisions during the period of devolution. That was a jaw-dropping allegation which got a bit lost amid all the other claims.

Even inquiry chair retired judge Patrick Coghlin was moved to probe whether Mr Bell meant if the Spads had just advised ministers on policy or had, as he seemed to suggest, overrode ministerial opinion.

The claims kept coming. Timothy Johnston, now the DUP's chief executive, and his brother-in-law John Robinson, another Spad, had not allowed Mr Bell to progress the matter of closing down the scheme and introducing new cost controls because they had interests in the chicken industry.

And as if all these claims were not enough Mr Bell had one more allegation, saying his Spad, Mr Cairns, had told him in "garish and lurid" detail of the sexual misbehaviour of two DUP ministers.

But the inquiry was not to be side-tracked and no further discussion was permitted.

In normal circumstances the public would feel cheated that no further details were forthcoming, but the evidence this week was so enthralling, claiming to show a side of the DUP and the workings of government that few suspected, that there was enough to feast on.

Mr Bell's statement yesterday that he would apologise for any failings on his own part if the inquiry was to lay blame on his doorstep in its final report was in keeping with the stance of a man intent on portraying himself as more sinned against than sinning.

But it will take a lot more than an apology for him to win over his former colleagues in the party hierarchy.

Belfast Telegraph

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