Belfast Telegraph

RHI inquiry told of civil servant's unease at DUP minister Bell's 'secret recordings'

 

By Victoria leonard

The former permanent secretary of Stormont's Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Deti) has claimed that former DUP Enterprise Minister Jonathan Bell "covertly" recorded their conversations in a move which he branded "profoundly disturbing".

In a written statement published online as part of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) Inquiry, Andrew McCormick claims that Mr Bell also admitted to recording conversations with his then party colleague, Carla Lockhart MLA.

Dr McCormick, who gave evidence to the inquiry yesterday, accused Mr Bell in his statement of "seeking reinforcement for his own position, which he clearly intended to use to establish the credibility of his stance in going to the BBC" (in an interview with Stephen Nolan) rather than "acting to protect my interests and those of other civil servants".

He said that the conversations with Mr Bell took place on December 11 and 12, 2016.

He also claimed that when he confronted Mr Bell outside the Senate Chamber on January 19, 2017 after a Public Accounts Committee (PAC) evidence session, Mr Bell responded that he "had been told that he was entitled to record conversations if he wished" - a view Dr McCormick "did not accept".

Dr McCormick, who became Deti's most senior civil servant in July 2014, says in his statement that he had been told at a meeting with DUP minister Simon Hamilton and party special adviser (Spad) John Robinson on Tuesday, December 13, 2016 that they "suspected" his meeting with Mr Bell "had been secretly recorded".

He added that he did not know how they knew, but that he "understood that the suggestion was that Jonathan Bell had previously acted in the same way in some other context or contexts".

He continued: "I note that Jonathan Bell avers in his statement (at paragraph 45) that he also recorded conversations with Carla Lockhart MLA.

"I further note that the Inquiry's Section 21 Notice does not pose the direct question to Jonathan Bell to divulge all of the conversations that he may have covertly recorded in this way.

"I found Jonathan Bell's actions in covertly recording our conversations profoundly disturbing, as it showed that the nature of the conversations was very different to the impression I had formed.

"Indeed, far from acting to protect my interests and those of other civil servants (as Jonathan Bell said in both the phone call on 11 December 2015 and the meeting in Netherleigh (Deti's headquarters) on 12 December 2015), he had apparently been seeking reinforcement for his own position, which he clearly intended to use to establish the credibility of his stance in going to the BBC.

"Jonathan Bell then used quotations from me in his interview with Stephen Nolan on 15 December 2016 and in his contributions to the Assembly debates in January 2017: at no stage in the conversations on 11 and 12 December 2016 had he indicated that he wanted to attribute any advice or comment to me.

"I confronted Jonathan Bell with my sense of grievance at his actions in a conversation outside the Senate Chamber on 19 January 2017 after the PAC evidence session.

"He said that he had been told that he was entitled to record conversations if he wished. I said I did not accept that view."

Mr Bell was suspended from the DUP in December 2016 following outspoken comments about party leader Arlene Foster's handling of the RHI scheme.

Meanwhile, in a text message released as part of the inquiry, Dr McCormick described it as a "great relief" that Mr Bell would not be travelling to the USA for a St Patrick's day event.

The message, sent by Dr McCormick to the then head of the Civil Service Sir Malcolm McKibbin and to former DUP special adviser Alastair Hamilton, followed a previous decision not to include Mr Bell in a ministerial visit to the US as part of the 2016 St Patrick's Day celebrations.

In a witness statement posted online as part of the RHI Inquiry on Monday night, Dr McCormick says he was "told that at one stage it had been envisaged that the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister would lead one programme and the Deti Minister a separate programme which would be directed to a range of additional locations".

However, he says that a week or two before St Patrick's Day 2016 he was told by Mr Hamilton that "plans had been scaled back and that Jonathan Bell would not be required to travel".

Dr McCormick said there were "indications that Jonathan Bell resented this decision" and he "inferred that as a direct consequence" of this he "delayed providing routine authorisation of Invest NI briefing and travel in support of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister".

Dr McCormick revealed to Mr McKibbin that he had considered seeking a ministerial direction to avoid cancellation of the trip.

On March 14, 2016, Dr McCormick texted Mr McKibbin and Mr Hamilton that Mr Bell was "clearing" his diary to go to New York after being invited to a St Patrick's Day breakfast. The message stated: "For your eyes only: JB has been invited through TIL to ICCUSA breakfast on 17th in NYC and is clearing diary to go. Taking Lisa, home Sunday. Can live with it if he uses BA points to pay for flights!"

But the following day, Mr Bell texted Dr McCormick: "New York off flights gone J."

Four minutes later, Dr McCormick texted Mr McKibbin and Mr Hamilton, stating: "Minister can't get flights so not travelling. Great relief."

The messages are among a raft of new information which has come to light as the RHI hearing continues, including bullying allegations made against Mr Bell made by his Spad Timothy Cairns, notably that Mr Bell "tried to break his finger and swung a punch at him".

Dr McCormick said that he was "not aware of these allegations before seeing the references to them in the inquiry documents" and "had absolutely no personal experience of" Mr Bell "exerting (or attempting to exert) untoward pressure or bullying, as others have alleged."

Elsewhere, Dr McCormick reveals that Deti and Invest NI felt a trip by Mr Bell to the US in January 2016 to lead an Invest NI Trade Mission "had not gone well".

The statement refers to "several awkward incidents" which it says "arose in relation to travel to the USA", and Dr McCormick noted that "in a number of subsequent conversations with Invest NI colleagues, they commented on Jonathan Bell's limited contribution to the projection of Northern Ireland's interests in relation to Foreign Direct Investment and trade (indeed they had been aware of his limited capacity to contribute effectively, and the risk of him making inappropriate or unhelpful comments even before the trip took place)."

The statement says that Mr Bell was "visibly tired at a key meeting on Friday 28 January 2016" and Dr McCormick says he was "told later that Jonathan Bell had had quite a late night" and it was his "impression" that he was consequently "unable to participate fully in the meeting in a constructive way".

Dr McCormick's statement also says that there was a "dispute between Jonathan Bell and Arlene Foster" relating to an invitation to a Wrightbus event featuring the then-Mayor of London Boris Johnson in February 2016, and to which Mr Bell did not receive an invite.

In a letter dated March 7, 2016, Mr Bell asked Dr McCormick to "investigate" why an invitation had not been received by his department.

In a further letter on March 10 to the senior civil servant, Mr Bell said Dr McCormick had told him that "the First Minister had instructed the Head of the NI Civil Service not to proceed with the investigation and you as permanent secretary informed me that it was your advice 'not to proceed for my own good.'"

Mr Bell requested that Dr McCormick "clarify what you meant by 'not to proceed for my own good?" and asked that "all future advice from you is given in writing to me while I investigate this matter legally."

However, in an email to Mr Bell's private secretary Sean Kerr, private secretary to the Secretary of State Fiona McCoy said Mr Bell's omission seems to have been "a genuine mistake".

In correspondence to Mr Bell, Dr McCormick says he understands that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister had not received invitations, and had contacted organisers to meet Mr Johnson "in the margins of the announcement event".

He wrote that Wrightbus stated it was "told by NIO that local ministers were not to be invited" but that the NIO "have no explanation as to why Wrightbus told me that it had been told not to invite local ministers".

Dr McCormick added that he advised Mr Bell not to pursue to investigation as it would be "difficult" to "see any outcome that would be satisfactory" to him, and that it "could do damage" to Mr Bell's relationships with Wrightbus and/or Transport for London.

He said it was his understanding that "the issue over the invitations has already damaged relationships between Wrightbus and Deti".

In a supplementary personal statement dated October 18, 2017, Dr McCormick says he was told by Mr Bell in the course of conversations that the DUP's most senior Spad Timothy Johnston - now party chief executive - was the "instigator of the delay" in introducing a new tariff for RHI, and admits that he also "voluntarily referred to 'TJ' as the instigator".

He stated that these references "need to be placed in the context" of "Jonathan Bell's clear statements of his prior and independent knowledge that Timothy Johnston had been behind the delay (based on a context wholly outside my knowledge)" and "a number of clear statements where I say directly that I (and my colleagues) had not been aware of, nor had we suspected, involvement by Timothy Johnston in the delay in the tariff reduction".

He added he "accepted and repeated Jonathan Bell's references to Timothy Johnston as a key advocate for keeping the tariff at the higher level" because "not to have done so would have been to imply untruth in what Jonathan Bell had stated very clearly".

He said: "Ultimately, it was only in a phone call on 16 December 2016 that Timothy Cairns directly confirmed to Chris Stewart and me that Andrew Crawford had been the 'prime mover' for the delay. It was only on the evening of the PAC hearing on 18 January 2017 (or possibly the next day) that Timothy Cairns first said to me that Timothy Johnston had also been involved."

Referencing the period between the Spotlight programme on December 6, 2016 and the PAC evidence on January 18, 2017, Dr McCormick added: "This was a period when the DUP was very concerned to deflect or discredit any possible reference to Timothy Johnston, and, ultimately, acquiesced with the necessity (as it appeared at the time) of naming Andrew Crawford as the instigator of the delay (though I note the email from Andrew Crawford early on the morning of 18 January 2017 which denies that that was the case).

"The DUP was clearly unhappy that I appeared to have accepted Jonathan Bell's premise that Timothy Johnston had been involved."

A DUP spokesman said: "It would not be appropriate to comment on evidence given to the public inquiry, outside of the inquiry process. It is important that the inquiry is allowed to complete its work."

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