Belfast Telegraph

I could've been wrong over sequencing of views, admits Arlene Foster

 

By Suzanne Breen

Arlene Foster has admitted she may have been wrong about the timing of when a senior civil servant told her he believed her special adviser had attempted to delay Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) cost controls.

Dr Andrew McCormick told the RHI Inquiry that he had raised concerns about special advisers with the DUP leader before her interview with BBC broadcaster Stephen Nolan.

He expressed surprise that during that interview in December 2016, she said she had "no idea" about the claims.

In her previous evidence to the inquiry, Mrs Foster stated that it was after the Nolan interview that Dr McCormick had "sheepishly" said he believed her special adviser Dr Andrew Crawford had delayed cost controls.

The DUP leader was asked to clarify the situation by the inquiry.

In her statement published last night, she admitted she may have been wrong in her initial claim.

"Given the febrile atmosphere, made worse by the fact that, prior to my interview with Stephen Nolan, I had been given no clear understanding of what Mr (Jonathan) Bell had said in his interview, it is possible that I am wrong about the sequencing of Dr McCormick telling me his view that Dr Crawford delayed the scheme."

She continued: "However, regardless of when Dr McCormick's belief was communicated to me, I was already aware of the contents of Dr Crawford's emails and would have taken the view that there was insufficient evidence at that time to draw any conclusions about the reasons for delay in the scheme, hence my reply to Mr Nolan that 'I had no idea'."

Mrs Foster said she would not have publicly voiced "an unsubstantiated comment" of that nature anyway.

"Indeed, I remain of the view that to repeat this unsubstantiated allegation to Mr Nolan, particularly in the circumstances that prevailed at the time, would have been inappropriate," she said.

"I did have no idea as to the facts of what took place and therefore I do not believe that my reply to Mr Nolan was contrary to the principle of openness within the seven principles of public life."

Dr Crawford, who was Mrs Foster's right-hand man in three Stormont departments, denies trying to delay cost controls.

In her statement to the inquiry, Mrs Foster called for a "fundamental appraisal" of the Northern Ireland Civil Service.

She also raised the possibility of extending the home civil service to Northern Ireland.

The DUP leader apologised for her party's role in the scandal at its annual conference last month.

She told the inquiry: "I believe that there is a strong argument for a fundamental appraisal of the Northern Ireland civil service.

"With advances in technology, the increasing complexity of policies, and the emergence of new approaches within the private sector, there is a need for greater specialism and expertise within the civil service.

"In my view, there is a case for consideration of extending the home civil service to Northern Ireland."

Mrs Foster added that the Department for Energy and Climate Change at Westminster had more than 70 people working on the RHI scheme in England.

In Northern Ireland there were just two.

"That level of resource is simply not available to a Northern Ireland-specific civil service," she said.

"There is therefore merit in giving strong consideration to how the expertise and resource available in Great Britain could be extended to cover Northern Ireland."

To applause from delegates at the DUP conference, Mrs Foster said she was "deeply sorry" for her party's handling of RHI.

Belfast Telegraph

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