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Jonathan Bell: DUP's 'poultry industry interests stopped RHI scrutiny'

DUP say Bell's claims are 'outrageous, untrue and unfounded allegations are nothing short of mud-slinging'

Jonathan Bell claims he was told he would not be allowed reduced the tariffs on the botched Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme because two DUP special advisers "have extensive interests in the poultry industry".

Mr Bell, who succeeded Arlene Foster as minister at the Stormont department that set up the RHI scheme, made his claims on Monday evening under Assembly privilege.

He said: "The very first piece of information given to me in a ministerial office, by DUP party officer appointed special adviser Timonthy Cairns, was that you will not be allowed to reduce the tariff on this scheme because Timothy Johnston, special adviser to the then First Minister, and John Robinson, at that time director of communications to the DUP and now the special adviser to the economy minister, had such extensive interests in the poultry industry.

"'Minister, this is not being allowed on your agenda. I have the information Mr Speaker, I have kept the records in many, many formats. This party has suspended me for telling the truth."

Mr Bell also claimed that an instruction was sent out by DUP special advisers to stop him from being called to give evidence to the Public Accounts Committee about the scheme.

The advisers named by Mr Bell, Timothy Johnston and John Robinson, denied the allegations.

The DUP said in a statement: "Following unsubstantiated allegations made by Jonathan Bell in the Assembly chamber under the cover of Privilege we wish to point out that:

"Timothy Johnston has no interests whatsoever in the poultry industry and does not benefit or have any family members who applied to or benefit from RHI

"John Robinson has no personal interest in the poultry industry. His family home farm have chicken houses but are not part of the RHI scheme and never have been recipients or applicants.

"These are outrageous, untrue and unfounded allegations are nothing short of mud-slinging."

Mr Bell and senior DUP figures, including leader Arlene Foster, are at odds about the chain of events that led to cost controls being introduced into the widely over-budget scheme and its ultimate closure.

The Strangford MLA made his claims during an Assembly debate at which economy minister Simon Hamilton faced growing pressure to publish the names of the beneficiaries of the scheme.

As Mr Hamilton presented a draft plan to cut the costs of the scheme, he was met with demands from MLAs to disclose details of those in receipt of payments.

Call for RHI beneficiaries to be named

Former Finance Minister Mairtin O'Muilleoir said: "The names of the beneficiaries should be published now.

"There are many questions hanging over this scheme in relation to people milking and scamming this system."

He added that Mr Hamilton's proposal "slows the runaway train that is RHI but it doesn't stop the debacle."

"The lack of honesty in dealing with the public has been disrespectful and shameful," said Mr O'Muilleoir.

Ulster Unionist Steve Aiken told the Assembly that the Department for the Economy did not publish a list of beneficiaries on Friday after the threat of injunction.

He added that the RHI scheme is causing a "burden of £85,000 a day" on the Northern Ireland budget and that the scheme "has become a veritable bonfire of DUP vanities".

The SDLP's Claire Hanna demanded to know what legal advice the Department for the Economy received when the decision was taken to withhold the names.

Alliance MLA Stephen Farry added: "The public interest lies in that transparency."

Earlier, Mr Hamilton said his proposal to cut the cost of the RHI scheme was the only opportunity available.

Windfall tax

The Green Party suggested a Windfall Tax as a solution to the spiralling RHI scheme costs.

Steven Agnew MLA said: "Simon Hamilton’s amendment proposal amounts to blatant electioneering. It is an attempt to save face ahead of the imminent Assembly election.

"Clare Bailey MLA and I are against the proposal because we consider that it will amount to a further waste of public funds with legal challenges likely.

"A Windfall Tax returns the RHI scheme to what was intended originally – an incentive to move toward renewable energy, not a get rich quick scheme for a connected clique.

"The Windfall Tax proposal is credible, it is a longer term solution and most importantly we believe it to be legally sound.

"Similar taxes have been implemented successfully elsewhere, including in the UK and a number of EU countries.”

The North Down MLA added: "The Economy Minister’s proposal is a waste of time, typical of the waste that has characterised this DUP/Sinn Fein Executive."

It was originally envisaged that the Treasury would foot the bill for the RHI scheme, but the costs spiralled well beyond London's financial commitment.

The total RHI spend in Northern Ireland is estimated at over £1 billion over the next 20 years.

The Treasury is set to cover £660 million of that, with Stormont landed with the remaining £490 million.

Former deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness resigned after DUP leader Arlene Foster refused to step aside while the RHI scheme - which she established in 2012 as enterprise minister - is investigated.

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