Belfast Telegraph

Jonathan Bell rowed with adviser in London curry house over RHI, inquiry told

By Staff Reporter

Former Stormont Enterprise Minister Jonathan Bell clashed with his Special Adviser in a London curry house, the RHI inquiry heard yesterday.

Inquiry counsel David Scoffield QC outlined the dispute and said that it resulted in the adviser, Timothy Cairns, taking an early flight home instead of accompanying Mr Bell to a meeting with UK Energy Secretary Amber Rudd.

The row was in part about Mr Bell's ability to take decisions on his own without consulting others in the DUP and ended with Mr Bell telling Mr Cairns that he wouldn't be attending the meeting with Ms Rudd.

Mr Cairns is one of a number of party appointees whose role in the bungled scheme is coming under intense scrutiny at the inquiry.

Mr Scoffield was setting the scene for the final phase of hearings into the so-called 'cash for ash' scheme.

The probe is now examining events of summer 2015, when the bungled heat incentive scheme moved into crisis, as it became clear that the likely costs of the scheme would far exceed the budget available.

The scheme closed to new applicants in February 2016.

The inquiry also heard that records of communications between DUP Special Advisers (Spads) during the period being probed by the public inquiry are scanty.

Minutes of key meetings were not kept, and much of the discussions about the scheme were confined to telephone calls -which were also not recorded, according to Mr Scoffield.

"I think it's fair to say that there's less of a paper trail in terms of relevant communications between Spads than this inquiry would have liked to have seen," the barrister told the inquiry panel yesterday.

He said that in some cases, email accounts had not been retained, and while the inquiry had analysed mobile phones where available, in some cases the call records did not stretch back to 2015.

Earlier in the inquiry, the current head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, David Sterling, claimed a culture of no note-taking had developed within Stormont departments due to the fear among ruling parties of details of sensitive discussions being made public through the freedom of information process.

The Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme was established to incentivise businesses to shift to renewable energy sources by offering a proportion of the costs to run eco-friendly boilers.

But in Northern Ireland the subsidy tariffs were set too high and without a cap, so it is ending up paying out significantly more than the price of the fuel.

The botched scheme sparked a political row that resulted in the collapse of Stormont in January last year.

The inquiry into the issue was set up to establish the facts and to investigate why costs spiralled.

The probe is chaired by retired judge Sir Patrick Coghlin, a former Court of Appeal judge.

The final phases of the RHI probe will feature further oral evidence from former DUP minister Jonathan Bell, as well as former First Minister Arlene Foster, and from DUP Special Advisers.

Belfast Telegraph

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