Belfast Telegraph

RHI: DUP communications chief Robinson appointed straight out of uni at age 22 - cannot remember if there was application to complete

DUP's chief spin doctor John Robinson.
DUP's chief spin doctor John Robinson.
Jonathan Bell

By Jonathan Bell

The DUP's Director of Communications questioned his own ability and experience when he was appointed to the role straight out of university at the age of 22.

John Robinson (33) appeared in front of the RHI inquiry on Wednesday morning. He was special adviser to Enterprise Minister Simon Hamilton between June 2016 to March 2017. He also has relatives who have RHI boilers.

He was asked about his background at the beginning of the morning session.

Raised on a dairy farm, the youngest of eight children at 22 he graduated with a bachelor of science degree in communications, marketing and advertising and "almost immediately" was appointed director of communications for the DUP succeeding Timothy Johnson, who is now the party chief executive.

Mr Johnson is also Mr Robinson's brother-in-law after marrying his colleague's sister in 2009.

Mr Robinson said he had been working with the party on part-time basis from 2004 and had taken a full time role during a year out from university.

He said on restoration of power sharing in 2007 he was interviewed and got the job.

“It certainly was a big role to take on at 22 years of age… I actually felt at that time, ‘have I the ability and the experience to do the role?'” he said.

He said he could not remember if there were any other candidates or an application to complete but assumed others were interviewed. He said he could remember the interview as he had an exam in the morning and the interview in the afternoon he admitted the interview was much "tougher" than the exam.

Mr Robinson said he questioned his own ability and experience at the time of the appointment but felt his time in the party prior meant he was someone whose "judgement was respected".

Questioned by counsel to the inquiry Donal Lunny about the control of the party over him, Mr Robinson said he was answerable to the party leadership and party officers. He said there would have been times he would have been in contact on an hourly basis.

He described the leadership team as a "tight-knit group" composing of the late Dr Ian Paisley, Peter Robinson, Timothy Johnson and Richard Bullick.

In June 2016 he then took on the position of special adviser to Simon Hamilton in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment.

He said he received a phone call from Mr Hamilton asking if her was interested in taking the position, confirming he would be and then organised to inform the party of his resignation.

Later he said the minister confirmed he was not the only one to be considered for the position but that he was appointed by Minister Hamilton and not the party leadership. He said his appointment was "wholly political".

It has been claimed the DUP leadership and certain special advisers were involved in the appointment of Spads as opposed to the minister as the code outlines.

Mr Robinson was asked by inquiry chair Sir Patrick Coghlin what happed to the range of potential candidates.

"I'm not sure," said Mr Robinson.

In his written statement he said there was no "formal hierarchy".  He says Timothy Johnson and Richard Bullick were considered senior "by virtue of their experience" but says he took instruction only from his minister. He said he would have considered their view as they were much more experienced. He said it was a "critical role" for Spads to seek the views of others.  He did admit to taking direction from Timothy Johnson.

He described Mr Hamilton as "policy focused" and "across every detail" during his spell as minister in DETI.

In March the following year Mr Robinson left the party to pursue a career outside of politics. However, when the snap election in the forthcoming months the party asked for him to return. He said as he watched the results unfold from home - for the first time - he realised he had a bigger role to play with the DUP.

He was later reappointed the party's director of communications as the role had not been filled after his earlier departure.

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