Belfast Telegraph

Politicians had to cope with extreme situations: Peter Robinson

 

By Staff Reporter

Former First Minister Peter Robinson last night said that the codes and protocols governing the actions of Special Advisers to NI Executive Ministers had been "stretched to, and beyond, their limits."

In a witness statement to the RHI inquiry released last night, Mr Robinson sought to explain how the Stormont Executive had to tread new ground and find its way as it operated a unique political system.

"We plied our trade on the front-line of Northern Ireland politics; we functioned in a rough and inauspicious climate and we did not live our lives consulting a rule book at every moment," he said.

"We were coping with extreme situations in a governmental system and structure unlike anything experienced elsewhere.

"The parties moulded the Code to make it work effectively for them in the peculiar structures we operate," he said.

The former DUP leader also called for greater clarity on the boundaries of Special Advisers' roles, and the manner of their appointment, if and when is restored.

On the RHI scheme itself, the DUP grandee said there had clearly been failures at every level of the scheme.

"In the normal gestation of any government decision it is expected that an error or omission made at one level will be caught and corrected at the next.

"In the case of the RHI scheme it appears from the elements of your inquiry I have picked up that weaknesses in the project were missed at every level.

"Consultants, civil servants, ministers, special advisors, senior officials and the Department's Assembly scrutiny committee.

"In addition the wider Assembly interest seems to have been in favour of prolonging the defective scheme."

The RHI team asked Mr Robinson about evidence given to the inquiry by top DUP Spads Timothy Johnston and Richard Bullick that in their view Mr Bell was not suitable to be appointed as a Minister.

The former First Minister acknowledged that Mr Johnston had "expressed misgivings" about the potential appointment of Mr Bell, but added that Mr Bell was "not the only Minister or post-holder about whom I have known Mr Johnston to express similar comments - including others I have appointed".

Giving his view of Mr Bell, the former First Minister said: "It is true to say Mr Bell was not the most popular member in the DUP's team, and might have been seen as an acquired taste, but that was never the telling factor in making an appointment.

"Jonathan Bell has suitable academic qualifications and worthwhile life experience in his professional career. He had valuable know-how of carrying our Ministerial duties as a Junior Minister, and he was practiced at contributing at Executive meetings."

Mr Robinson responded to a criticism from Spad Timothy Cairns, who had told the RHI inquiry that his (Cairns') appointment as a Spad to Jonathan Bell "defied logic".

"As he was not in a position to know the factors which together provided the logic, as it applied to other Departments, he might have been better not setting himself up as the judge in such matters," Mr Robinson said.

He was also asked about a key meeting on June 26, 2015, and the deteriorating working relationship between Mr Bell and Mr Cairns which had culminated in a public row in a restaurant.

"It was a clear the air meeting so both Mr Bell and Mr Cairns had the opportunity to raise any matter they wished. Mr Johnston and I were carrying out an unofficial Mr Robinson said.

"This is not to conclude that Mr Bell did not have a temper, it is to suggest that Mr Cairns never considered it to be of such a magnitude to merit making a formal complaint."

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