Belfast Telegraph

DUP chief Foster's statement on RHI may not have showed candour, inquiry told

By Mark Bain

A statement made by Arlene Foster at the height of the Renewable Heat Incentive may not have "displayed the candour which could be expected in the circumstances", a public inquiry has heard.

Mrs Foster's statement came after former DUP minister Jonathan Bell's shocking TV interview with the BBC's Stephen Nolan alleging that DUP special advisers - or 'spads' - had tried to keep the RHI scheme open in defiance of his wishes.

The inquiry also heard how Mr Bell's own spad had referred to him as "a liability".

It was during a delay to tighten cost controls of the RHI that applications - which allowed grant recipients to earn profits from the scheme by burning more and more biomass fuel - spiked dramatically.

As first minister at the time, Mrs Foster had planned to rebut Mr Bell's claims in the Assembly.

Yesterday, counsel for the inquiry David Scoffield QC revealed the contents of WhatsApp messages in the run-up to Mrs Foster's statement.

Andrew McCormick, who was then the permanent secretary of the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Deti), made a suggestion to Mrs Foster's senior spad Richard Bullick late on December 18.

He suggested Mrs Foster should state that Mr Bell had not wanted the delay and that "others in the party were pressing for the scheme to be kept open", because they mistakenly believed that the Treasury would pay the bill for the entire RHI spend.

At one point, Dr McCormick told Mr Bullick that the draft of the speech "is all true, but misses the fact that AC's influence was decisive. I fear that saying 'Jonathan Bell should have stood up to him' won't be enough. It's not what it is. It's what it looks like. Sorry, need some sleep."

AC is Dr Andrew Crawford, who has denied trying to delay the introduction of new cost controls to the scheme.

Hours later, Dr McCormick told Mr Bullick in an email: "Minister Bell may have been passive but it would be wrong to attribute the drive for the delay to him and in September I had no knowledge of the identity of the applicants to the scheme."

Mr Scoffield said that what Mrs Foster later told the Assembly was "extremely carefully worded". She said the decision over the timing of cost controls had been up to Mr Bell, and the only person who could overrule him, the then first minister Peter Robinson, had not done so.

"The line being adopted is that the timing of the introduction of cost controls was entirely a matter for Mr Bell," Mr Scoffield said.

"Whilst that might be correct as a matter of law and ministerial responsibility, the panel might wish to take a view on whether the statement displayed the candour that could be expected in the circumstances."

The inquiry also heard how, just three days before this, Mr Bell's own spad - Timothy Cairns - had recounted how he once told Mr Robinson that his boss was "a liability". In a text to senior spad Timothy Johnston, he said: "Please be assured of my support. I remember saying to Peter with you in FM (first minister's) office that he is a liability. I will do whatever is needed to expose lies."

In another WhatsApp conversation, it was revealed how John Robinson - who was the then DUP Economy Minister, Simon Hamilton's spad at the time - believed Dr McCormick was worried that Mr Bell has secretly recorded him.

Mr Hamilton said Dr McCormick had told him "he was unable to sleep over this". He added: "I sense he's worried. I think he's made a complete clown of himself on this tape."

Belfast Telegraph

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