Belfast Telegraph

RHI: No attempt by party to keep me out of RHI furore, claims DUP's chief executive Johnston

Top official who made allegation was under lot of stress: Johnston

By Suzanne Breen

The DUP's most powerful unelected official has claimed a top civil servant - who said the party wanted to deflect or discredit any RHI references linked to the then Spad - was under "significant mental/emotional strain" at the time.

In his witness statement to the inquiry, Timothy Johnston rejected the claim by Dr Andrew McCormick, who was the permanent secretary at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Deti).

Mr Johnston, who is appearing before the inquiry today, denied attempting to delay RHI cost controls and said he had no detailed knowledge of the scheme.

In his evidence, Dr McCormick claimed the DUP was "very concerned to deflect or discredit any possible reference to Timothy Johnston" and "acquiesced with the necessity" of naming another special adviser, Dr Andrew Crawford, as the instigator of the cost control delay.

Challenging the senior civil servant's allegation, Mr Johnston said: "Dr McCormick was felt to be under very significant mental/ emotional strain at the time and required significant support.

"I therefore understand the context of Dr McCormick's evidence but I do not accept there was any attempt to deflect away from me, but rather to establish the truth of what had taken place."

Mr Johnston was special adviser to DUP First Minister Arlene Foster at the time the cash-for-ash scandal broke.

He is now the party's chief executive.

He denied it had agreed to the naming of fellow Spad Dr Crawford.

The inquiry has heard that Dr Crawford leaked confidential RHI documents to relatives.

Mr Johnston described him as "a valued colleague who sought to do his best to make the mandatory system work in difficult circumstances".

He added: "In all my dealings with him he acted honourably and beyond reproach."

On his alleged role in delaying RHI cost controls, Mr Johnston said: "I had no involvement in the decision-making processes on the introduction of cost controls in 2015.

"I was unaware of the detail of any discussions, meetings, communications and final decisions on cost controls at the time."

He continued: "At no time did I seek to influence or encourage Timothy Cairns (a former special adviser at the Stormont department in charge of the scheme), or anyone else, to delay, soften or reduce cost controls.

"I was not in possession of any detailed knowledge about the scheme, its financing or operation at that time and had no reason to be so."

Mr Johnston denied he was at the top of the DUP's special adviser hierarchy at Stormont or that Spads ran the show.

No minister "was expected, required or in my experience would have tolerated taking direction from an adviser", he stated.

Mr Johnston said it was his "general recollection" that both Mrs Foster and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness wanted a slight delay to RHI's closure.

"I recall in this period that Sinn Fein were extremely concerned by the negative public reaction to the intention to close announcement and, as tended to be the case, they were concerned by the reaction of the SDLP and the opposition of all the other Assembly parties to the announcement and the manner of its timing."

Mr Johnston said "the vast bulk" of meetings between the First Minister and Deputy First Minister on how to resolve difficult political issues were rarely documented. "Sinn Fein in particular were keen to exclude officials from meetings. Sometimes that was appropriate, but on many other occasions it was not," he added.

Mr Johnston admitted that a speech Mrs Foster gave to the Assembly on her role in RHI to empty benches in the chamber in December 2016 was a major mistake.

"I do now consider, with the benefit of hindsight, that making the speech to the House after the deputy First Minister had withdrawn his consent and other parties boycotted the chamber to have been a political error," he said.

Asked about the disparity in text message communication presented to the inquiry between him and another former Spad, Richard Bullick, Mr Johnston said he had not removed or deleted any text messages, or any other documents for that matter.

He said: "I purchased software to recover text messages as my phone automatically deleted messages after 30 days.

"I was unaware it was possible to recover messages until alerted to the fact by Mr Bullick."

Profile of Johnston

Timothy Johnston is a former special adviser to three First Ministers: Ian Paisley, Peter Robinson and Arlene Foster.

Last year the DUP appointed him chief executive officer of the party — a newly created senior post.

He has long been regarded as the most powerful official in the DUP and keeps strict discipline among its members.

Mr Johnston was made DUP director of policy aged 24 at a time when most of the senior positions in the party were held by middle-aged men.

A year later he became DUP communications director.

A former accountant, he  began his political life in the Ulster Unionist Party, joining the DUP in 2002.

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