Belfast Telegraph

I am just one boy who has become victim of massive smear campaign, an emotional Bell tells RHI inquiry

 

By Suzanne Breen

Stormont's former chief spin doctor described DUP minister Jonathan Bell as a "monster" created by the "Frankenstein" Peter Robinson.

Ex-journalist turned head of communications for the Executive Office, David Gordon, sent an email to DUP special adviser Richard Bullick asking why the former First Minster hadn't disputed Mr Bell's claims to the BBC on the cash-for-ash scandal.

The Belfast Telegraph has seen details of the correspondence which supports the DUP minister's extraordinary claim yesterday to the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) inquiry.

However, a source suggested it was intended as a joke as opposed to something more sinister.

It is understood the email will soon be published by the inquiry.

In his correspondence on December 18, 2016, David Gordon wrote: "Isn't it time Frankenstein put the monster he created to sleep?"

It's understood Mr Gordon was asking why Mr Robinson hadn't refuted Mr Bell's version of events.

Mr Bell had given an explosive interview to BBC broadcaster Stephen Nolan three days earlier.

Mr Gordon, a former editor of the Stephen Nolan Show, declined to comment on the matter last night.

Mr Bell has previously claimed he was over-ruled by DUP figures when he tried to close the cash-for-ash scheme. He was minister at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Deti) which oversaw RHI.

The former minister made a series of shocking allegations when appearing before the RHI inquiry yesterday.

He said his special adviser Timothy Cairns had told him "in garish and lurid detail" about "the sexual misbehaviour of two DUP ministers".

In his evidence, Mr Bell accused Mr Gordon of briefing "that I was a monster that had to be put to sleep".

Mr Bell also alleged that Sky's Ireland correspondent David Blevins was providing advice to the DUP on how to "destroy" him by attacking him "on his Christian faith".

Sky News: "The suggestion by Jonathan Bell that David Blevins advised the DUP on anything is completely and utterly untrue."

Mr Bell choked with emotion as he claimed he was "just one boy" standing against multiple attempts to smear him.

He denied that he swung a punch at Mr Cairns or threatened to break his finger after he wagged it during a breakfast meeting with the minister.

Mr Bell said the allegation was "untrue, completely without foundation and has no basis whatsoever in fact".

He added: "I have never tried to break anybody's finger and never would."

He claimed text messages Mr Cairns sent to DUP leader Arlene Foster and another former special adviser Timothy Johnston, who is now the DUP's chief executive, revealed he "would fit his story to whatever the party narrative was to be".

Mr Bell claimed the DUP offered a newspaper an exclusive story about him being a bully if they used the headline 'Bully Boy Bell'.

He told the inquiry: "I have to say to you, I am just one boy, I can't operate against the Executive Office. I fear I have been the victim of a massive smear campaign and I fear this is part of the smear campaign."

Mr Bell spoke of his at times difficult relationship with his special adviser whom he claimed deliberately attempted to restrict his powers. He said Mr Cairns had told him: "Ministers come and go, spads remain."

He claimed his special adviser felt more responsible to DUP spads Timothy Johnston and Richard Bullick than to him as minister.

After a blazing row in London in June 2015 over the extent Mr Bell as minister was free to make his own decisions without consulting the DUP, Mr Cairns took an early flight back to Belfast and was off work for a fortnight.

However, after a meeting to clear the air, relations improved, Mr Bell claimed. While Mr Cairns' evidence to the inquiry is that he was unhappy with the outcome of the meeting, Mr Bell said they "worked together far more constructively" afterwards.

"We regularly had coffee together, we socialised together ... enjoyed ourselves ... (I) built sandcastles with his children on beaches in Portstewart."

Mr Bell claimed other DUP advisers viewed Mr Cairns as "a Walter Mitty character that aspired to be like them".

He alleged his spad was intimidated by the others whom he frequently deferred to.

Allegations that the DUP camouflaged how it appointed spads were raised. Mr Bell said he was ordered to appoint Mr Cairns in May 2015 by the DUP.

According to a code of conduct, ministerial advisers should be appointed by ministers and several candidates should be considered. Mr Bell said DUP ministers previously had a "free choice" until a minister appointed a spad the party didn't like.

Mr Bell admitted he signed a "pre-written" letter saying he had considered several candidates and found Mr Cairns the most suitable and was choosing him. He wrote that Mr Bell believed Mr Cairns pay should be in the upper band, which goes up to £92,000, and suggested £80,000 - although he was eventually given a salary of around £76,000.

Inquiry chair Sir Patrick Coghlin said this "represented a false situation", and suggested that despite the situation Mr Bell faced, "perhaps a little integrity could creep into it somewhere".

Sir Patrick also said there was a "very real concern" that the appointment process for advisers was being camouflaged. Mr Bell responded: "That's exactly right."

Mr Bell told the inquiry he first became aware of issues with RHI on August 24, 2015. The next month, he signed an order for cost control measures with a four-week delay. He insisted he would have authorised the action earlier had he been made aware of the situation. He said he was told the delay was necessary to get measures through.

There was a surge in applications for the scheme before the cost-cutting tariffs took effect in November. Almost 1,000 boilers were accredited to the scheme between August and November. In a statement to the inquiry, Mr Cairns has claimed he gave the minister an RHI briefing on July 8 before Mr Bell went on holiday.

The former spad also alleged Mr Bell had limited availability that summer because of a family trip to China in July and a holiday in Portstewart in early August.

Mr Bell yesterday rejected that claim. "I was available for every meeting, every photocall, every business ... (civil servants) could've contacted me at any time ... but there was no attempt to contact me, I believe," he said.

Mr Bell told the inquiry he had not been made aware of budget concerns about RHI until that summer. He couldn't remember the exact date. "I honesty can't precisely recall," he said. "It was not a formal meeting, it was a conversation."

Deti's permanent secretary Dr Andrew McCormick had first raised it with him, he added.

Mr Bell claims DUP advisers worked against him to stop the addition of cost controls.

In a written statement to the inquiry, he alleges Mr Cairns told him that Timothy Johnston was "not allowing the issue to be progressed as he and his brother-in-law John Robinson", who was then also a spad, "had interests in the chicken industry".

Belfast Telegraph

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