Belfast Telegraph

Paisley’s claims energy official lied about RHI phone call were unjustified, inquiry is told

Ian Paisley
Ian Paisley
Whistleblower Janette O’Hagan
Allan Preston

By Allan Preston

Ian Paisley was "unjustified" in accusing an energy official of telling lies, a barrister has told the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) inquiry.

The DUP MP used his parliamentary privilege in March to launch a stinging attack on Teri Clifton, an official for the energy regulator Ofgem, which administered RHI.

She had claimed that the North Antrim MP had been part of a "very intimidating" conference call on behalf of an applicant to the botched green energy scheme.

Mr Paisley denied he was part of the call and said in Parliament that Ms Clifton had lied and that she should be "put through the wringer" at the RHI inquiry.

At the time, he also accused the RHI inquiry chair Sir Patrick Coghlin of putting words in Ms Clifton's mouth.

The phone call concerned a disputed RHI application by Sean and Anne McNaughton.

The matter was raised again yesterday by inquiry barrister Joseph Aiken, who said fresh evidence had since been received.

Mr Aiken said an Ofgem official told the inquiry Ms Clifton had found Mr Paisley's comments in Parliament "deeply upsetting".

She also stands by her claim she was told Mr Paisley was on the conference call.

The McNaughtons deny Mr Paisley was part of the call and say there was no attempt to intimidate, with Mr Aiken adding in a witness statement that they were "very aggrieved about the entire situation".

This was backed up by another participant in the call, who said Mr Paisley was not involved.

The lawyer said that while the issue was one of "limited relevance" to the overall inquiry, he said it had been important to establish the facts given that such a "serious allegation" had been made against Ms Clifton.

"It is one of a multitude of issues and the inquiry has endeavoured to take proportionate steps to establish such of the facts that can be established given that a witness to the inquiry was very publicly accused of lying to the inquiry," he said.

Mr Aiken told the panel they could consider Mr Paisley's claims in Parliament that Ms Clifton had lied to be "unjustified in the circumstances".

Mr Paisley did not wish to comment.

Earlier, a claim that DUP leader Arlene Foster was "accountable but not responsible" for the actions of her former ministerial adviser was challenged.

Sir Patrick took issue with the phrase during closing remarks by a DUP barrister.

He said he was not clear what the DUP leader was saying in regard to her oversight of Dr Andrew Crawford.

"She has a saying that she is accountable but not responsible," he said. "I, for myself, am not entirely clear what that might mean."

He pressed DUP barrister Julie Ellison over whether Mrs Foster should share more of the blame for a number of failings.

These included not picking up on warnings from the whistleblower Janette O'Hagan, a lack of record-keeping at ministerial meetings and not realising Dr Crawford hadn't read detailed RHI reports.

Ms Ellison said Mrs Foster felt Ms O'Hagan deserved a "sincere apology", that she was unaware officials weren't taking minutes, and it was for the panel to decide whether Mrs Foster gave proper instructions to Dr Crawford.

Regarding the "shadowy world" of special advisers, Ms Ellison told the panel they had broken the rule of never becoming the story.

Former DUP minister Jonathan Bell has claimed top DUP 'Spad' Timothy Johnston directed another adviser, Timothy Cairns, not to introduce cuts and to work instead with fellow adviser Dr Crawford.

Ms Ellison said Mr Johnston had no interest or influence over RHI in the summer of 2015.

A barrister for Mr Cairns went on to say he acted "reasonably and appropriately" over RHI, but agreed some aspects could have been carried out better.

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