Belfast Telegraph

Sparks to fly as former DUP minister Bell ready to testify at the RHI inquiry

By Suzanne Breen

Since the RHI inquiry opened, it has been a mixed bag in terms of political drama. There have been some enlightening appearances, but much of it has been too heavy on technical detail to command the public's attention.

The fire on cash-for-ash hasn't quite gone out, but the flames have burned a lot less brightly. Well, all that's about to change.

Former DUP minister Jonathan Bell will give evidence to the inquiry on Thursday and Friday. It was Mr Bell's explosive claims against Arlene Foster and party advisers in December 2016 which turned up the temperature on the scandal.

Either very courageously or mischievously - depending on who you believe - he broke ranks to speak to BBC broadcaster Stephen Nolan and call for a judge-led public inquiry into RHI.

This week, the very inquiry he called for will scrutinise his claims. It will not be an occasion for broad brush strokes. Mr Bell will be asked in minute detail about his allegations.

Questioning will focus on the former Enterprise Minister's claim that two senior DUP figures "were not allowing this scheme to be closed" as costs spiralled out of control in autumn 2015.

The men at the centre of the allegations are Timothy Johnston, who was then the special adviser to First Minister Peter Robinson, and is now the DUP's powerful chief executive; and Dr Andrew Crawford, an adviser to the then Finance Minister Mrs Foster.

Mr Bell claimed they secretly tried to "cleanse the record" of references to her. The alleged attempts to alter papers were made "without my knowledge, without my consent" and an email trail exists to prove his claim, he told the BBC.

Both Mr Johnston and Dr Crawford deny the allegations.

Dr Crawford, who appeared before the inquiry earlier this year, will return to give evidence on September 13 and 14. He resigned at the height of the cash-for-ash scandal but remains employed by the DUP.

Mr Bell will also be grilled at the inquiry this week over what he has described as a very stormy meeting with Mrs Foster early in 2016.

"I was ordered to appear in front of the First Minister ... in the strongest terms both in volume and in force, Arlene Foster as First Minister overruled me and told me to keep the scheme open," he told Mr Nolan.

"She was highly agitated and angry because I had been refusing the whole way for the last period and telling them I wasn't going to do this."

He claimed there was a "hostile" atmosphere of "fear" and added: "She (came) walking in and shouted at me that I would keep this scheme open."

Mrs Foster has strenuously denied Mr Bell's allegations and has accused him of making them to mask his own alleged failings over RHI.

She has said that he was the one acting aggressively in the meeting, something she claimed was a character trait - "plenty of people know what Jonathan Bell is like".

Mrs Foster said she had a witness to prove "how he spoke" to her. She added: "He used his physical bulk to stand over me in quite an aggressive way."

These completely clashing accounts of what happened will be examined by the inquiry. The DUP leader is expected to return to give evidence later this month.

Another key event under scrutiny when Mr Bell appears this week will be a blazing row he had with his special adviser Timothy Cairns in June 2015.

It began over dinner in a London curry house and continued over breakfast the next morning, ahead of a key meeting with then Energy Minister Amber Rudd.

The argument was in part about Mr Bell's ability to take decisions on his own without consulting others in the DUP. It ended with the Enterprise Minister telling Mr Cairns he wouldn't be attending the meeting with Ms Rudd. The special adviser took an early flight back to Belfast.

Mr Cairns is himself due to appear the following week before the inquiry led by retired judge Sir Patrick Coghlin.

The inquiry is expected to hear of the very difficult relationship between Mr Bell and his special adviser.

Former Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment permanent secretary Andrew McCormick will be the first witness called after the inquiry's summer break.

He will give evidence on Tuesday and Wednesday. But it will be Mr Bell that all eyes will focus this week.

"I have had to do one of the most difficult things in my life; tell the Northern Ireland public the truth and shine a light and deal with a major problem," he said in his extraordinary BBC interview.

"The facts are documents, emails, times and dates. You will not find one single thing that is not the truth. I have done my duty.

"God does not punish people for telling the truth. Let's see how it plays out."

It will be a riveting watch on Thursday.

The five things that we have learnt so far...

1. Arlene Foster didn’t read the legislation which set up the RHI scheme. Asked if she had read the regulations when she brought them to Stormont in 2012 as Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister, she said: “No, I don’t believe I would have read them at that stage. I probably would have only read the explanatory note, but not the regulations involved.”

Under questioning, she said with hindsight “one wishes one had asked more questions”.

2. The DUP leader feels she doesn’t bear personal responsibility for the scheme, even though it was set up on her watch as minister. “I didn’t do anything wrong,” she said. The way the scheme ended up was “a matter of deep regret for me politically and personally”, she stated, but it was “difficult to see what I could have done differently at that time”.

3. Mrs Foster’s special adviser Dr Andrew Crawford told a relative that the lucrative RHI subsidy would soon be ending. He sent his cousin Richard Crawford, a poultry farmer, an internal document which had not yet been released to the public. He told the inquiry that was “wrong” and apologised for it.

4. Dr Crawford also leaked a confidential legal letter to the lobbyist son of former first minister Peter Robinson. He sent the correspondence — linked to a controversial planning case involving a John Lewis store at Sprucefield — to Gareth Robinson, whom he admitted giving preferential treatment to over other lobbyists.

5. The head of Northern Ireland’s civil service David Sterling said some Stormont meetings were not minuted as it was “safer” not to have a record which might be released following a Freedom of Information request. He said the DUP and Sinn Fein were very “sensitive to criticism” so senior civil servants “got into the habit of not recording all meetings”.

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