Belfast Telegraph

RHI chair calls DUP methods 'unpleasant' as Spad lifts lid on 'grubby' politics

 

By Suzanne Breen

The chair of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) Inquiry has said the DUP was run in an "unpleasant way".

Sir Patrick Coghlin was speaking as he heard evidence from former special adviser Timothy Cairns yesterday.

Mr Cairns insisted he had not tried to smear former Department of Trade and Enterprise (Deti) Minister Jonathan Bell over the affair.

But in the exchanges he admitted that politics was "a grubby world".

The former special adviser has accused Mr Bell of bullying and violent behaviour towards himself and other DUP representatives.

He claimed that former DUP leader Peter Robinson was informed of the complaints about the DETI Minister, but ignored them.

Mr Cairns also alleged that Mr Bell got so drunk in a New York bar he was ordered to leave and had to be helped home.

Sir Patrick said the "clear inference" from a document before the inquiry was that Mr Cairns was prepared to modify his comments about Mr Bell's alleged bullying in order to protect Mr Robinson.

In a text message he sent to another DUP special adviser, Richard Bullick, in December 2016, Mr Cairns said he was prepared to "fit my story in with the party narrative and what is best for the party".

Under questioning at the inquiry, he denied he was attempting to smear Mr Bell.

Sir Patrick said: "There are no two ways to look at what is meant by 'a party narrative' in this country.

"It means that the party have a version that may be closer or farther away from the truth, but that is what the party says.

"You were prepared to contribute to whatever the party said?"

Mr Cairns said: "That is correct."

Sir Patrick replied: "That seems a rather unpleasant way to run a party."

The former special adviser answered: "I think that would be a question for the Democratic Unionist Party. I wasn't in the leadership."

But Sir Patrick continued: "Please understand what I am saying.

"If a political party decides to have a particular narrative which you know not to be the whole truth, do you say that's a good thing?"

Mr Cairns replied: "I don't think I (do). I am saying that's a question for the party and the party officers."

In a further exchange, the former DUP special adviser said: "That's politics, I'm afraid. It is a grubby world."

Sir Patrick replied: "That is an understatement, if you don't mind me saying."

Mr Cairns replied: "I think you are correct, Mr Chairman."

Mr Cairns told the inquiry that the current DUP chief executive, Timothy Johnston, delayed the closure of the RHI scheme to allow others to join when he was a special adviser.

He alleged that Arlene Foster knew about Mr Johnston's role in delaying the closure, which she has denied.

Mr Cairns claimed that a day before Mrs Foster told BBC broadcaster Stephen Nolan that Mr Johnston had no role in delaying RHI cost controls, she had been informed that he had been involved.

The former special adviser said that he had told Mrs Foster of Mr Johnston's role in a conference call in which the DUP leader, Mr Johnston and Mr Bullick all took part.

He said he mentioned that Mr Johnston had told him to liaise with Mrs Foster's special adviser, Dr Andrew Crawford, to develop a party position on the introduction of cost controls.

"Mr Johnston clearly became uncomfortable and the conversation was quickly brought to an end," Mr Cairns said.

"Mr Bullick also informed me that Mr Johnston was uncomfortable with my discussion because up until that point he was adamant that he had played no role in RHI. However, my revelation had undermined his position."

Mr Cairns said he did not believe that the DUP leader had in either her BBC interview or in her Assembly statement "fully expressed the view I had stated to her in the speaker phone call that Mr Johnston had given, at least initial, direction in this matter".

The inquiry heard that within the DUP special adviser team there was a hierarchy, with Mr Johnston the most important figure by far.

Mr Cairns said: "There is not one elected representative, not one employee or special adviser, who did not recognise that Mr Johnston was very at the much at the top of the tree within the DUP.

"Mr Johnston had a very powerful role within the party. Mr Johnston's influence was seen from the party top to bottom."

Mr Cairns agreed that Mr Johnston's role went "well beyond" that of a special adviser.

He said that Mr Johnston was second only in power to party leader Mrs Foster.

In his evidence to the inquiry, Mr Johnston has stated that there was no hierarchy among special advisers.

Sir Patrick said: "That is something which operates within the Democratic Unionist Party, certainly not consistent with the code, but it's a practice that they enforce and endorse isn't it?"

Mr Cairns replied: "That is correct, Mr Chairman."

He agreed that Mr Johnston's role could well have been described as that of a chief executive when he was a special adviser.

Mr Cairns said he had "no recollection" of saying "ministers come and go, but Spads remain" as Mr Bell had claimed in his evidence, but he agreed that was the perception within the party.

"Perhaps, yes, it is certainly is an accurate description of the First Minister's office," he added.

Mr Cairns said he was unhappy when he was sent to DETI to work with Mr Bell in 2015. It was not a role the other DUP Spads were keen to do.

"Nobody seemed to want to go with Mr Bell," he said.

When asked why that was the case, he stated: "It is very difficult to function as special adviser if the minister is not absolutely across his brief.

"Every special adviser in OFMDFM (Office for First Minister and Deputy First Minister) experienced that issue with Mr Bell.

"Primarily, that would have been in everybody's mind. It makes things especially difficult when you are meeting outside groups, businesses, international relations. It makes it very difficult when you are constantly going into meetings and your minister is not briefed."

Mr Cairns claimed that Mr Bell did not read his briefing documents.

He described the minister as being "pretty passive" in meetings with civil servants, and it was himself as a Spad who spent most of the time "interrogating" them.

Mr Cairns said there was no opportunity for him to complain to the DUP about being allocated Mr Bell because Mr Robinson "would not have taken well to his authority being challenged".

Mr Cairns said he had no knowledge of RHI when he became the special adviser at DETI.

"I noted last week that Mr Bell said he had a vague knowledge of the RHI scheme," he said.

"I have to go one step backwards from that; I had no knowledge of the RHI scheme on day one in Deti."

In his evidence, Mr Bell alleged that Mr Cairns did not allow RHI to get onto ministerial briefing agendas.

Mr Cairns said: "I am at a loss to answer that. I don't know what to say. I don't recall anything like that.

"It definitely wasn't said on my part. I don't know how to answer that, I am sorry, other than a flat denial.

"No discussion was shut down at any time by me."

Mr Cairns said Mr Bell was told at a meeting on June 8 that the RHI scheme did not have the proper approval, appropriate costs controls and that the budget was not there to fund the scheme. Mr Bell denied this version of events during his oral evidence last week.

Mr Cairns yesterday said that he believed the Deti minister resented how popular Mrs Foster was and this coloured his response to suggestions that he should take advice from her.

Mr Cairns rejected Mr Bell's claim to the inquiry that they continued to positively socialise together after a row in a London hotel when he claims Mr Bell threatened to break his finger.

He said that there was some socialising due to being away on Deti trips with small groups, but not outside of this.

"We weren't making sandcastles with the kids at this point," he added.

"I can state categorically that there was no socialising."

Mr Cairns said working with Mr Bell was so stressful he was signed off work sick by a doctor.

He was invited by Mr Johnston to a clear-the-air meeting with Mr Bell after the London row.

He claimed that during a telephone conversation about it Mr Johnston gave him two options - to reconcile with the Deti minister or lose his job as a special adviser.

Mr Cairns claimed he had been deeply affected by his experience at that time and found it "still upsetting to talk about".

Asked by counsel for the inquiry if he thought about not going returning to his job as Mr Bell's special adviser, he replied: "I guess we've got mortgages to pay and bills to pay and... life."

He said he discussed the situation with his wife and decided that going back to work would be "purgatory", but with a Stormont Assembly election on the horizon the next spring "this too shall pass".

Mr Cairns left his job as a DUP special adviser in May 2016 and has worked in the voluntary sector since then.

Addressing the reasons why he left, he said: "I believe I received a letter some time around the end of May, start of June.

"It said there would not be a role within the party for a special adviser, but by that stage I already understood that would be the case."

He said no one had told him to his face that he didn't have a role in the DUP any more.

His preference at that time would have been to remain in the party's employment, however he added: "That's the nature of politics, people come and people go."

Mr Cairns said he had a conversation with Mr Johnston at a breakfast meeting in October 2016 about why he was let go.

He insisted that he has no ill feeling towards Mr Johnston or Mrs Foster.

Mr Cairns will continue giving evidence today and Dr Crawford will appear before the RHI Inquiry again tomorrow.

Belfast Telegraph

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