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RHI: Jonathan Bell’s ‘nuclear’ interview on BBC Nolan show contributed to Stormont collapse, claims Arlene Foster

DUP leader tells of their deteriorating relationship and how she thought he wasn’t fit to be a minister

By Suzanne Breen, Political Editor

Arlene Foster has accused former DUP minister Jonathan Bell of pressing "the nuclear button" and helping bring down power-sharing with his explosive Nolan Show interview on the Renewable Heat Incentive.

The DUP leader told the RHI Inquiry yesterday that she should have sacked Mr Bell when she became First Minister but feared he would "go rogue".

In her evidence, Mrs Foster strongly defended her party's special advisers and said the DUP appointed people "who had third-level education" unlike some other parties.

She insisted she was "accountable but not responsible" for her special adviser Dr Andrew Crawford who leaked confidential RHI information to relatives. He is also alleged to have crucially delayed cost controls, which he denies.

Mrs Foster told the inquiry that ministers were "thrown in at the deep end" at Stormont and there was "no training day".

The DUP leader told the inquiry that Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Deti) Minister Mr Bell "pressed the nuclear button" by giving an interview to the BBC's Stephen Nolan in which he made a range of allegations on the cash-for-ash scandal.

Mrs Foster claimed that Mr Bell "contributed" to the collapse of devolution by speaking out.

He "spoke to Nolan in a fashion that contributed to the breakdown of the Assembly", she said. "Jonathan had to take what was coming to him in terms of the reaction it caused.

"We (the DUP and Sinn Fein) had agreed a plan, a way forward to deal with this issue."

Mrs Foster said those proposals had included an inquiry, a cost-control plan, and her making a statement to the Assembly.

But following Mr Bell's BBC interview, Mrs Foster said Sinn Fein withdrew from that plan. "We were then on a trajectory to the Assembly collapsing and the Executive collapsing," she added.

Mrs Foster said it was "a great regret of mine" that she hadn't removed Mr Bell as a minister when she became First Minister in January 2016 but there were concerns he would "go rogue" if replaced.

Mr Bell "hero-worshipped" former DUP leader Peter Robinson and never really accepted her leadership, she said.

Senior party members generally shared the view that Mr Bell wasn't a suitable candidate for a ministry, she claimed. But the view predominated that it was best to allow him to remain in office until the election.

"Clearly with hindsight, I shouldn't have left him there; the view was expressed to me, how much harm can he do in three months? It would cause a lot of problems and he would go 'rogue' if he was replaced as a minister," she said.

"Clearly the relationship between myself and himself deteriorated. He retreated and basically wouldn't speak to anyone. He did of course speak to the former First Minister on many occasions and take his counsel rather than deal with the person who had been appointed leader by the party.

"He never really accepted my leadership. He hero-worshipped Peter and had a real difficulty when Peter left."

Mrs Foster pointed out that she didn't reappoint Mr Bell after the election. She claimed he didn't take his ministerial job seriously enough.

"He saw it as a role where he was to be served rather than to serve, and therefore I thought he wasn't an appropriate person to serve as a minister," she said.

Mr Bell told the inquiry earlier this month that the DUP was trying to "fit him up" over RHI and blame him. Mrs Foster denied this and said "paranoia had set in".

The inquiry has heard of clashes between Mr Bell and his Deti spad Timothy Cairns. Mrs Foster said she agreed with Timothy Johnston, now the DUP's chief executive, that the minister and his aide "were as bad as each other and both should be dismissed from their posts".

Mrs Foster said it was Mr Robinson's decision to put the two men together despite knowing Mr Bell "had a temper".

Under questioning about how the DUP appointed its spads, Mrs Foster said: "I don't think we were any different at all, if you look at the Ulster Unionists, the SDLP, certainly Sinn Fein put people into posts from their backroom team, we were no different.

"I will say this, all of the special advisers that the DUP appointed were people who had third-level education, and who had an ability to work within the system. I am not sure that that can be said about every other special adviser."

Inquiry chair Sir Patrick Coglin said the code on appointing Spads was clearly not being observed. Mrs Foster replied. "I'm not going to say there's not room for improvement."

She revealed that discussions have taken place with other parties around governance at the Stormont institutions, and that the appointment of Spads was included in those discussions.

The DUP leader said if she had been aware that her special adviser Dr Andrew Crawford had sent a confidential government document about RHI to a relative, she would have spoken to the department's permanent secretary and taken advice on how to deal with the breach. When asked what degree of responsibility she had for her Spad's actions, Mrs Foster said she was ultimately accountable - but as she was not aware of what he had done, she wasn't responsible.

"If he had committed a criminal offence as a Spad, I don't see how the panel would be asking me to be responsible for that. I'm accountable but I'm not responsible," she stated.

Mrs Foster told the inquiry that as a Stormont minister, you were "thrown in at the deep end". There was "no training day" and the minister relied "on advice, your own reading and senior civil servants".

She added: "I think that is a shortcoming and is something that needs to be rectified when or if the Assembly gets up and running again."

When asked about a note from a whistleblower raising "very serious concerns" about people abusing the RHI scheme, Mrs Foster said she had passed it onto the head of the Civil Service.

"I was essentially acting as a post box so that it could be dealt with by the appropriate department," she said. Mrs Foster claimed that the late Deputy First Minister (DFM) Martin McGuinness knew about the whistleblower's warning.

Sinn Fein adviser Aidan McAteer has claimed the note "was not shared" with Mr McGuinness "at that time". Mrs Foster insisted her recollection was "clear" and if she didn't show it to Mr McGuinness, she spoke to him about it.

When asked about Mr Cairns removing a reference to the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister from a submission to close the RHI - which the inquiry heard was done to "curry favour" with her - she described it as a "very strange episode". She said she had "no understanding" as to why he did that.

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