Belfast Telegraph

Bell claims First Minister bullied him to keep ‘out of control’ RHI open at meeting

By Suzanne Breen

Former DUP minister Jonathan Bell has claimed Arlene Foster ordered him to keep the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme open during a stormy meeting at which he felt bullied.

On his second day giving evidence to the RHI Inquiry yesterday, Mr Bell said he had told the DUP leader it was "folly" to keep the scheme open as the costs spiralled out of control.

But he claimed the then-First Minister overruled him and said it would have to be kept open longer.

Recounting the meeting on February 9, 2016 Mr Bell said: "There was tension, the atmosphere was abusive, Arlene was very abrupt.

"I said, 'Minister, I have made the decision (to close the scheme), we had announced the decision and really are you going to place me in a position...where in my view I am effectively asking a civil servant to do something that is wrong, and order them to do it. I wasn't prepared to do it."

Mr Bell continued: "I did argue hard not to do it, but she ordered me to do it.

"She said: 'Look I am the First Minister, you will follow my order. I am instructing you and reversing your decision.

"I felt bullied into taking the decision because I was taking the decision against my rational judgement."

As Department of Trade, Enterprise and Investment (DETI) minister, Mr Bell had already announced that the scheme would close with immediate effect on February 5, 2016.

This caused concern and anger among potential claimants.

The former DETI minister alleged that Mrs Foster "created a paper trail" calling for RHI to be closed, but verbally she and some DUP special advisers pushed for it to be kept open.

At the tense meeting in Stormont's Parliament Buildings, Mr Bell said the First Minister told him she wanted to keep the scheme open in order to consult further with industry.

"I thought that was totally unreasonable because we had a scheme that was out of control," he said.

In an interview with BBC broadcaster Stephen Nolan, Mrs Foster claimed it was the DETI Minister who had been "very aggressive" with her.

In his evidence yesterday, Mr Bell said that several hours after the first meeting, he had a second "much more friendly" encounter with his party leader.

"Arlene was in agreement then with me and said: 'I think what you're saying is correct," he told the inquiry.

He claimed that Mrs Foster asked for a two-week extension to the RHI scheme which he agreed to. He told DETI Permanent Secretary Dr Andrew McCormick that closure in a fortnight would be acceptable to the First Minister and Dr McCormick said he "could live with that".

It has been suggested to the inquiry by Mrs Foster and two DUP Spads (special advisers) that Mr Bell opposed an extension to the RHI scheme because it made him look foolish.

Counsel for the inquiry, David Scoffield QC, said they argued that Mr Bell's concern was "not so much public finances, rather the fact that changing your position so soon after you announced the decision would be something which looked like a political U-turn".

Mr Bell denied this was the case. He agreed that it did make him and "the rest of the party" appear foolish, but he also believed it was a foolish decision and the wrong one.

The main reason he had opposed the extension was to be "a proper steward of public funds".

Mr Bell was questioned about his relationship with Mrs Foster.

He said there had been other issues aside from RHI between them in previous months but he didn't detail them. The pair had been good friends when students at Queen's University Belfast and Mr Bell said he had previously relied on Mrs Foster for advice.

Mr Bell said all sorts of questions had been asked about his motivation in making his RHI allegations. He told the inquiry that he had sacrificied his political career to stop the RHI overspend.

"My only motivation was those hundreds of millions of pounds to get back into the health service and our education system.," he said.

"For that I knew I would have sacrificed my political career. I have had two objectives.

"One, an inquiry to establish the truth. We have got that and I have every confidence in this panel, including any criticism you may or may not have of me for which I'll apologise for in advance.

"But secondly, to ensure these costs were changed and that money is now available. For both of my objectives, I have achieved them."

The inquiry chair, Sir Patrick Coghlin, asked Mr Bell several times why he had secretly recorded a conversation with Dr McCormick in 2016.

The former DUP minister said he regarded Dr McCormick as a "man of integrity" and all he wanted was a "valid record" of his own concerns over special advisers' alleged interference in keeping RHI open after he had moved to close it.

Mr Bell did not tell Dr McCormick he was recording their meeting because he might not "have been getting the accurate information" otherwise.

He said he needed a "contemporaneous, accurate account" of their discussion and because Dr McCormick was then working for a different minister, there may have been a reluctance "to have information released".

Mr Bell said: "I had serious concerns that the actual information I was seeking and needing was being evaded."

Sir Patrick replied: "I'm still, I'm afraid, why it was necessary to bring a concealed recording device." The former DUP Minister said he refused to allow his secret recordings to be broadcast because his only purpose in making them was "validating what I had to say".

The inquiry heard about the spike in RHI applications at the time when DUP ministers were "in-and-out" of office in protest at the murder of Kevin McGuigan.

The father-of-nine was shot dead by the Provisional IRA in the Short Strand in August 2015.

DUP ministers would resign for several days before returning to office for a short period and then resigning again.

Mr Bell told the inquiry that this action didn't impact on his work as DETI minister.

"DETI functions continued as normal," he said. "I returned on a weekly basis to deal with urgent business, and only resigned when all urgent business (was) dealt with."

At the start of yesteray's hearing, Sir Patrick warned that the inquiry wasn't a "media sensational platform".

He said: "There is no open invitation to witnesses to come along and use the hearings for the purpose of publishing material to which they object or take offence for reasons which are irrelevant to the inquiry.

"It is not a media sensational platform."

The warning followed a statement from Mr Bell during Thursday's evidence. He said his special adviser Timothy Cairns had told him "in garish and lurid detail" about "the sexual misbehaviour of two DUP ministers".

The RHI Inquiry resumes on Tuesday with Mr Cairns set to give evidence for the first time. Mrs Foster is due to be recalled to the Inquiry later this month.

Belfast Telegraph

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