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RHI: Rampant jealousies and jockeying at top of DUP laid bare for all to see

By Suzanne Breen

The DUP's hostile relationship with Sinn Fein has dominated media headlines in recent times as the old political enemies trade blows.

But the disclosure of open warfare within the upper echelons of the party at Stormont is far more embarrassing for the Duppers than any row with republicans.

The claims made in Dr Andrew McCormick's statements to the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) Inquiry were pure political farce. They revealed a Stormont soap opera beyond what even the most cynical satirist would have come up with.

Rampant jealousies and jockeying for position, and a leading DUP figure taping others.

Then there's the extraordinary allegation that former Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Deti) Minister Jonathan Bell tried to punch his special adviser Timothy Cairns and break his finger.

This is material you would expect on the Jeremy Kyle Show.

But it's actually a glimpse into what was going on behind-the-scenes in the DUP, which we have always been told is one big (and certainly not dysfunctional) happy family.

The Ulster Unionist Party did tear itself apart during David Trimble's leadership, but at least no accusations of physical violence were ever made.

In his written witness statement, Dr McCormick referred to the poor relationship between Mr Bell and Mr Cairns. The special adviser made allegations that the minister "tried to break his finger and swung a punch at him".

It is, of course, important to point out that Dr McCormick was not in any shape or form validating the claims made against the minister.

Indeed, he said: "I think I should emphasise that, for most of the time when Jonathan Bell was Deti Minister, I got on very well with him: both as minister, and at a human level in all the ordinary day to day interactions that are inherent to the job.

"Jonathan Bell actively sought my advice and involvement... always appeared to respect my role and position, often with relaxed good humour, and I had absolutely no personal experience of his exerting (or attempting to exert) untoward pressure or bullying, as others have alleged."

Mr Bell, who is due to appear before the RHI Inquiry tomorrow, will surely address the allegations, and Mr Cairns will have his say when he gives evidence next Tuesday and Wednesday.

Dr McCormick said Mr Bell had recorded conversations with himself and with DUP Upper Bann MLA Carla Lockhart.

There were claims that a trip by the former DUP minister to the US in 2016 to lead an Invest NI Trade Mission "had not gone well".

Mr Bell was "visibly tired at a key meeting on Friday, January 28, 2016" and Mr McCormick said it was his "impression" that he had been "unable to participate fully in the meeting in a constructive way" as he had "quite a late night" the previous evening.

There was friction over Mr Bell's lack of invitation to a Wrightbus event in Ballymena involving London Mayor Boris Johnson which Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness attended in February 2016.

Mr Bell was clearly very keen to increase his profile and assert his independence as minister. This brought him into direct conflict with the party's top brass.

The outcome of that long-running battle will be decided at the RHI Inquiry.

The former DETI minister's claims and those of his opponents will be examined in painstaking detail over coming days and weeks.

Both sides know the stakes couldn't be any higher.

Some of key figures with links to botched green energy scheme

ANDREW McCORMICK

Former permanent secretary at Deti. In February he moved from leading the Department for the Economy to become director general of International Relations, heading up NI’s preparations for Brexit.

ANDREW CRAWFORD

Was special adviser to then Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster when the RHI scheme was developed and launched in autumn 2012. He has appeared a number of times in front of the RHI Inquiry.

TIMOTHY JOHNSTON

Former special adviser to three First Ministers: Ian Paisley, Peter Robinson and Arlene Foster. Last year the DUP appointed him to the newly-created senior post of chief executive officer.

TIMOTHY CAIRNS

Former special adviser to Jonathan Bell when he was Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. He is now a member of the board of cross-border business body InterTradeIreland.

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