Belfast Telegraph

Suzanne Breen: Bell's extraordinary allegations make for compelling viewing

By Suzanne Breen

The one appearance we have all been waiting for since the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) inquiry was established was that of Jonathan Bell.

The former DUP minister certainly didn't disappoint. From the moment he took the Bible in both hands to swear the oath, it was compelling viewing.

Even one of the avalanche of allegations he made would have been shocking.

But these extraordinary claims came thick and fast and portray the DUP and its entire operation at Stormont as a highly toxic outfit.

Mr Bell put in a powerful performance in his interview with Stephen Nolan in December 2016.

The conventional wisdom in political circles was that he would fall flat on his face on the RHI inquiry stage. But as proceedings wound up for the day around 5pm, the former minister was still very much on his feet.

Certainly, it was a far tougher gig for him than his appearance before the BBC broadcaster. The opportunity for theatrics was limited. There was forensic questioning from the inquiry's impressive counsel David Scoffield QC, chair Sir Patrick Coghlin and other panellists.

Their frustration was clear for all to see as Mr Bell failed to remember exact details or recall precise times in the RHI saga.

Yesterday, he did not put meat on the bones of what he has claimed about some senior DUP figures. But Mr Bell will not have come away from the hearing displeased or disappointed. He navigated himself well through the questioning and didn't suffer reputational damage.

At no time during the exchanges at the inquiry did he look like he was in trouble. His tone, demeanour and delivery appeared calm and comfortable.

He spoke of a smear campaign against him. A senior Stormont official described him as "a monster who had to be put to sleep", he said.

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

The former minister clearly was paranoid but the question remains - did he have legitimate reason to be so?

Mr Bell did not employ religious language as he did on his BBC interview just before Christmas 2016. But the words he chose were still very emotive.

"I have to say to you, I am just one boy, I can't operate against The Executive Office," he said.

Mr Bell is presenting himself as a solitary individual speaking out despite overwhelming odds against the machine.

If people don't accept his narrative in its entirety, will they believe the gist of what he is alleging? Whatever their judgment, Stormont will certainly have sunk lower in the public's esteem.

From his description of how DUP special advisers are appointed to the fighting and feuding between individuals meant to be on the same team, it all appears one sorry mess. More and more people will likely be wondering about the wisdom of bringing back devolution.

Mr Bell returns to give evidence today and, of course, the whole situation could turn completely in a few exchanges. That's what makes it gripping viewing.

Belfast Telegraph

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