Belfast Telegraph

A DUP minister fast asleep in New York bar, claims of bullying and threats of violence... just another week at the RHI Inquiry

 

It reads like a political satire written by someone with a very vivid imagination, but in fact it is a documentary of the real-life workings of the devolved administration at Stormont - or at least that part of it involving the DUP and its handling of the ill-fated RHI green energy scheme.

Who would have thought that a minister on an important trade mission to America got so drunk he was ordered to leave a pub, as the inquiry heard this week?

Or that the same minister was prone to intimidating fellow party members (Something he denies)?

Or that it was not elected MLAs, or DUP ministers, who wielded real power at Stormont, but a coterie of special advisers, one of whom was second only in power to party leader Arlene Foster during the height - or should that be the depth - of this debacle?

Little wonder that inquiry chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin, who finds it difficult at times to conceal his astonishment at the evidence being presented to him, was moved to ask one witness if he accepted that the DUP was run in "an unpleasant way".

The witness in reply admitted that politics was a "grubby world". Quite so, it seems, no matter whose evidence at this inquiry you believe.

The star of the show last week - at least as far as the media was concerned - was former Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Deti) Minister Jonathan Bell, who, among other claims, said he was forced by DUP leader Arlene Foster to keep the RHI scheme open, even though it was clear it was going to grossly overrun its budget.

The man who was later to face claims of bullying said he felt bullied at a stormy meeting with his party leader, and acceded to the demand even though it was against his "rational judgement".

He told the inquiry he had sacrificed his career to stop the RHI overspend and that his only motivation was that the hundreds of millions of pounds that could be saved would be returned to the health service and education budgets.

But a different picture of Mr Bell was painted by his special adviser, Timothy Cairns, in both his witness statement to the inquiry and during his appearance before it.

In his own way, his evidence was as explosive as Mr Bell's had been previously.

The headline story for the media was that infamous trade mission to New York in January 2016. Mr Cairns said his minister had ordered a bottle of wine for his table and then several glasses in an attempt to disguise the fact that he was the only person drinking.

The delegation then moved on to a bar, where Mr Bell fell asleep. The party was warned they would have to leave if he fell asleep again, which he did, and they were ordered out.

On the way back to the hotel, it was claimed, Mr Bell sang the hit song Breakfast At Tiffany's at the top of his voice.

In his statement, Mr Cairns said Mr Bell had an "explosive personality" and sometimes, if his views were challenged, he would behave in an intimidating manner. He claimed Mr Bell threatened him twice and bullied two DUP female politicians - Emma Little-Pengelly and Michelle McIlveen.

He further claimed that, during a stormy exchange with Mr Bell, the minister threatened to break his finger - an allegation denied by Mr Bell - and on another occasion went into a rage when the pair were in a room and approached Mr Cairns with his fists clenched.

"I felt physically under threat," said Mr Cairns.

Mr Cairns claimed that, although these allegations of bullying were forwarded to the-then party leader, Peter Robinson, he did nothing about them and proceeded to promote Mr Bell again and again.

Turning to Mr Bell's behaviour as a minister, Mr Cairns said: "The minister rarely read his ministerial papers, or briefing notes, to the point where he often boasted to me that he only ever read the summary sheet. This made the administration of the department exceptionally difficult for senior civil servants and myself."

Mr Cairns also claimed that, after becoming First Minister, Arlene Foster became concerned at the number of foreign trips taken by Mr Bell and, around February 2016, ordered that he would not take any further foreign trips for the duration of the Assembly mandate.

Mr Cairns said he told Mr Bell about this order, but the minister ignored it and arranged trips as he saw fit.

Turning to other special advisers, Mr Cairns said two of them - Timothy Johnston, now DUP chief executive, and Dr Andrew Crawford - were involved in delaying the closure of the RHI scheme. He described Mr Johnston as a "powerful figure" who "ran all matters relating to the party".

He said that while running party matters while still a special adviser, Mr Johnston was "operating outside of what he was permitted to do".

He also claimed that, in November 2015, Mrs Foster, who was then Finance Minister, called him personally to have RHI cost controls delayed for two weeks for a constituent who wished to install six boilers under the scheme.

The Permanent Secretary at Deti, Dr Andrew McCormick, had resisted the request and Mrs Foster accepted that the introduction of cost controls could not be delayed.

In his direct evidence to the inquiry, Mr Cairns denied he was trying to smear Mr Bell, or to protect Mr Robinson.

But Sir Patrick Coghlin was not prepared to let the issue fade away. He referred to a text message sent by Mr Cairns to another special adviser, in which he said he was "prepared to fit my story in with the party narrative and what is best for the party".

Sir Patrick said there were two ways to look at what 'the party narrative' meant.

"It means that the party may have a version that may be closer or further away from the truth, but that is what the party says. You were prepared to contribute to what the party said."

Mr Cairns agreed, to which Sir Patrick replied: "That seems a rather unpleasant way to run a party."

Mr Cairns said that was a question for the party to answer and he was not in the leadership.

Sir Patrick added: "Please understand what I am saying. If a particular party decides to have a particular narrative, which you know not to be the whole truth, do you say that is a good thing?"

Mr Cairns said: "I don't think I (do). I am saying that is a question for the party and party officers."

After a further exchange, the special adviser added: "That's politics, I'm afraid. It is a grubby world."

Sir Patrick minced no words: "That is an understatement - if you don't mind me saying".

Mr Cairns replied: "I think you are correct, Mr Chairman."

Mr Cairns claimed that Mrs Foster knew that Mr Johnston had played a role in delaying the closure of the scheme, although she denied it in an interview with the BBC's Stephen Nolan in the wake of Mr Bell's astonishing broadcast interview.

Mr Cairns said he had informed Mrs Foster of Mr Johnston's role in a conference call to which both had been party, along with another special adviser.

The inquiry was told that, within the special adviser team of the DUP, Mr Johnston was by far the most important figure.

Mr Cairns said: "There is not one elected representative, not one employee, or special adviser, who did not recognise that Mr Johnston was very much at the top of the tree within the DUP."

He said Mr Johnston's influence was seen from the top to the bottom of the party, and that he was second only to Mrs Foster in power.

In evidence, Mr Johnston had said there was no hierarchy within the special advisers.

Sir Patrick asked Mr Cairns: "That is something that operates within the Democratic Unionist Party, certainly not consistent with the code, but it's practice which they enforce and endorse, isn't it."

The special adviser replied: "That is correct, Mr Chairman."

Returning to Mr Bell, Mr Cairns said that none of the special advisers wanted to work with him. Asked why, he said that it was difficult to work as a special adviser if the minister is not absolutely across his brief.

He said every adviser in OFMDFM (the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister) had experienced that issue with Mr Bell.

"Primarily, that would have been in everyone's mind. It makes things especially difficult when you are meeting outside groups, businesses, international relations. It makes it very difficult when you are constantly going into meetings and your minister is not briefed."

He also claimed that Mr Bell resented how popular Mrs Foster was, and this coloured his response to suggestions that he should take advice from her.

Mr Cairns admitted changing a RHI document to win "brownie points" from Mrs Foster, and also admitted that the party attempted to defend her as much as possible.

He said his action was of his own volition and not part of a party narrative to lay all the blame for the Cash for Ash scandal at Mr Bell's door.

But the inquiry heard that there were two very different accounts of why the introduction of cost controls was delayed.

Mr Cairns said another special adviser, Dr Andrew Crawford, had asked him to seek the latest possible date for the introduction of the controls, but Dr Crawford in evidence said that Mr Cairns acted alone in that respect.

Sir Patrick noted the "irreconcilable differences" in their evidence and said: "One of you is accurate, or telling the truth, about that ... not both."

Mr Cairns suggested that both their memories were different. The special adviser admitted that the scheme was fatally flawed from the outset as it was believed that the Treasury would pick up any overspend - "It is better to be spent in Belfast than in Bristol."

Mr Cairns said he had no motives for wanting the controls introduced later and did not have any connections within the farming community, or the industry.

Mr Cairns left his job with the DUP in May 2016 and has worked in the voluntary sector since then. Although no one told him face-to-face that he didn't have a role with the party anymore, he understood that was the case. He would have preferred to stay on, he said, adding: "But that is the nature of politics, people come and people go."

In his evidence, Dr Crawford said he believed the DUP allowed him to be falsely named as the instigator of delays in cost controls in order to protect its now chief executive, Mr Johnston.

He said that he had been named by the Permanent Secretary to the Public Accounts Committee in January 2017 and the party had done nothing to clear his name, ie by revealing that he had denied the accusation on several occasions and had produced contemporaneous emails to support his position.

Dr Crawford said he could not recall if he directly warned Mrs Foster in 2015 when she was Finance Minister that a "tsunami" of applications were about to hit the RHI scheme.

He had told others that there would be a huge spike in applications in the weeks before cost controls were introduced, but he could not be sure that he had updated Mrs Foster on that.

The inquiry heard that three of his relatives - a brother and two cousins - had 11 boilers under the RHI scheme, but he said that, although he had fields adjoining his brother's poultry business, there was no financial link between them. All lived within a 10-mile radius.

The inquiry heard that a boiler installer had told Dr Crawford's brother that he could make £250,000 in income over 20 years and fuel savings of £300,000, but Dr Crawford said he had never discussed those figures with his brother.

He apologised for sending a confidential RHI document on cost controls to his cousin Richard, accepting it was "something I shouldn't have done".

However, he said it was being widely discussed in the industry that RHI was going to be made less lucrative and his cousin was worried about the implications of that given his substantial investment in six boilers.

Dr Crawford said he sent him the information to reassure him that his business would not be affected, rather than to give him advance notice of the new cost controls.

He said he had never discussed the financials of the scheme with his relatives.

Dr Crawford also admitted sending an email to poultry processing firm Moy Park on the proposed changes, but said he was sending them "factual information that was provided and available in the department".

He denied trying to delay cost control changes and said the party wrongly tried to pin the blame on him.

Although he was sore about the way the matter was handled, he was still a member of the party, "so it is not that I blame everyone in the DUP for what happened".

There are many in the wider public who may not be so charitable in their views on the party.

Who's who at the RHI Inquiry

ARLENE FOSTER

DUP leader and former First Minister. Minister at Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Deti) when the RHI scheme began in 2012. Subsidy tariffs were set too high without a cap, leading to costs spiralling out of control. She described it as her "deepest political regret", but denies claims by Jonathan Bell, her former party colleague and successor as Enterprise Minister, that she ordered him to keep the scheme open.

JONATHAN BELL

Succeeded Arlene Foster as Deti minister in May 2015, until May 2016, when RHI costs became a problem. The former DUP Strangford MLA alleged two DUP special advisers (Spads) - Timothy Johnston and Andrew Crawford - intervened to delay the start of cost controls in autumn 2015 - a period when there was a spike in applications to the scheme. He claimed Mrs Foster "overruled" his bid to close the botched scheme in early 2016.

TIMOTHY CAIRNS

A former barrister, he was Mr Bell's special adviser at Deti. Mr Bell alleged that Mr Cairns told him that other DUP Spads were not allowing the RHI scheme to be closed in September 2015. Mr Bell said that he believed Mr Cairns saw himself as working for the other Spads and not for him as minister. But Mr Cairns has accused Mr Bell of bullying, swinging a punch at him and trying to break his finger - claims Mr Bell denies.

ANDREW MCCORMICK

Became permanent secretary at Deti in 2014 and was in post when the RHI scheme's massive overspend became clear. Mr McCormick told the RHI Inquiry that Mr Cairns told him Timothy Johnston, another DUP Spad, was involved in the decision to delay cost controls. In January, it was announced Mr McCormick was being appointed as director-general of international relations for Brexit in the absence of the Northern Ireland Executive.

TIMOTHY JOHNSTON

After being a special adviser to Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson, Mr Johnston became a Spad to Arlene Foster when she took on the role of First Minister in January 2016. He was accused by Mr Bell of not allowing the RHI scheme to close in early autumn 2015, but he has rejected that allegation. Following the collapse of the Stormont Executive over the RHI scandal in early 2017, he became chief executive of the DUP.

ANDREW CRAWFORD

Spad to Mrs Foster in Deti when RHI was introduced. Quit role in January 2017 after Mr McCormick told a Stormont committee he understood Mr Crawford was exerting influence to keep the scheme's high tariff level. He denied the claim and any wrongdoing. At the RHI Inquiry, he accepted it was "inappropriate" to have shared RHI cost-control plans with family before they were introduced. Now a part-time DUP adviser.

DAVID STERLING

As interim head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, he is effectively the man in charge of running Stormont departments in the absence of devolved government. He was the lead civil servant in Deti when it introduced the flawed RHI scheme in 2012. Mr Bell alleged to the RHI Inquiry that Mr Sterling feared the energy scheme controversy would cost him his chance to become the head of the Civil Service.

CHRIS STEWART

Jonathan Bell claimed Chris Stewart, Deti deputy permanent secretary, sought a meeting to blow the whistle on a bid by DUP advisers to remove Mrs Foster's name from RHI documents. Mr Bell said Stewart would back this at an inquiry, but Stewart said he "did not seek a meeting as a whistleblower". He acknowledged a DUP adviser changed the wording of a Deti document, but that Mr Bell later "advised that he had dealt with the matter".

STUART WIGHTMAN

A former official at Deti who was responsible for running the RHI scheme in its final weeks. Mr Wightman told the inquiry he directed a colleague to inform poultry producer Moy Park and other interested parties of changes to cost controls as a "courtesy". He also alerted boiler firms and the Ulster Farmers' Union to the delay in cost controls before DUP minister Jonathan Bell had even been asked to approve the proposal.

JANETTE O’HAGAN

Ms O'Hagan was selling a heat efficiency product in 2013, but found potential clients were not interested, especially when they had signed up to the RHI scheme. She raised concerns about the scheme with the then-Enterprise Minister, Arlene Foster. She told the inquiry she would do the same thing if the RHI debacle happened again, despite unwillingly becoming the centre of a political and media storm.

Belfast Telegraph

Daily News Headlines Newsletter

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox.

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph