Belfast Telegraph

RHI: 'We could fill our boots,' what DUP adviser told top Deti civil servant

Crawford knew about abuse of scheme, inquiry hears

By Allan Preston

A senior civil servant has said a DUP adviser knew about the abuse of the Renewable Heat Incentive and had told him "we could fill our boots", as the Treasury was picking up the bill.

Dr Andrew McCormick, top man at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Deti) when the botched green energy scheme was set up and collapsed, also said officials "got used to" special advisers ruling the roost at Stormont.

During the last day of oral evidence to the inquiry, Dr McCormick was chastised for not asking to see crucial emails between two DUP Spads detailing plans to delay the closure of the RHI scheme.

Dr McCormick also gave damning evidence to the inquiry that DUP Spad Andrew Crawford knew about the abuse of the scheme.

At an official function in October 2016, Dr McCormick said Andrew Crawford told him "we could fill our boots" over RHI as he believed the money was coming from the Treasury in London instead of the Stormont budget.

Dr McCormick also spoke of his fear after ex-DUP minister Jonathan Bell secretly recorded him speaking about RHI and planned to go public.

Inquiry chair Sir Patrick Coghlin had sharp words for Dr McCormick about how powerful Spads had become.

Even though they were employed as civil servants and received their pay from the public purse, they refused to share these with Dr McCormick.

"It was referred to me that I wasn't going to see them, it was internal DUP material," Dr McCormick said.

Sir Patrick hit back: "That's not good enough, no matter how febrile the atmosphere. You're being told about a Spad that's allegedly delaying cost controls. That's pretty crucial, Mr McCormick."

He replied: "The reality that we got used to (since devolution returned to Stormont in 2007) was that they (the Spads) were in charge."

In December 2016 Dr McCormick said he endured "the most extraordinarily messy two weeks by some distance".

At this time trust between the DUP and Sinn Fein had collapsed, a plan to close RHI was ditched after it was leaked to the Press, and Mr Bell gave a bombshell interview to the BBC's Stephen Nolan.

Before that interview Mr Bell secretly recorded a meeting about RHI with Dr McCormick and told him he planned to go public. "The level of anxiety and fear went up several notches," Dr McCormick said.

His main concern was that he may have said something "outrageous or derogatory" in an unguarded moment.

"A previous minister said to me: 'Andrew, your job is to be invisible'. So this was coming in the most embarrassing and unwelcome way," he said.

At the end of his evidence, panel member Dame Una O'Brien asked Dr McCormick what the single most important lesson had been from the RHI crisis.

An emotional Dr McCormick replied: "We have to find a way to build trust that allows these institutions to work."

He added: "This has been incredibly destructive as an event. It's certainly done me personal damage."

Sir Patrick said the ambiguity surrounding special advisers could not continue.

"The structure of the Spad, someone who claims to be both a civil servant and member of a political institution. That's a very difficult double act," he said.

"You have a code. The saddest thing is that the Civil Service has tolerated a move away from the code. That's something you'll really need to look at."

Belfast Telegraph

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