Belfast Telegraph

Jonathan Bell or Arlene Foster - who is telling the truth about RHI?

By Malachi O’Doherty

Northern Ireland is divided now between those who see Jonathan Bell as a deeply spiritual man motivated by his faith to be honest and those who see him as a calculating political assassin.

Clearly he waited until the storm of protest and derision had become unsustainable before expressing his shame and implicating Arlene Foster in the prolonging of the Renewable Heating Incentive. Had Spotlight and the Nolan Show not investigated and stirred up popular anger, would Bell really have heard God’s call so clearly, acted on it so directly?

Last night he gave us a shocking picture of the working of the Executive. It is one in which ministers have no autonomy. He has described how special advisers have hounded him in office to change his decisions, how a senior civil servant sought a private meeting with him to disclose how the advisers were conspiring to remove Mrs Foster’s name from documents relating to the heating scheme.

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He has described an Executive in which a minister can be abused and humiliated by Mrs Foster, a colleague on the same level as himself.

The most disturbing image is that of Bell, exhausted after a sleepless flight from Canada, pleading with Foster to accept his decision to close a scheme that is leaking money and being shouted down, and then going meekly into the Assembly to announce that it was to be extended for another two weeks.

He had the best of possible reasons for closing the scheme. It was overspent. The Treasury was refusing to cover the extra money; funds would have to be siphoned from essential services. Yet he was the minister, nominally empowered to make decisions, and he was entirely overruled, he says.

Mr Bell says he has been harbouring his shame and rage for a year and done nothing in that time.

He acknowledges now that he should have resigned rather than follow orders he didn’t believe in. He apologises.

But he wasn’t apologising at the time; he was meekly surrendering to Mrs Foster’s will.

And she came on striking the most ungainly tone and describing Mr Bell as the aggressive one and refusing to stand aside.

“I’m supposed to have a crystal ball?” she asked, insisting she knew nothing at any time and scoffing at the idea that advisers would have ganged up on a minister. What are we to make of it? Clearly both versions can not be right.

And when we learn which one is true, the humiliation for the other party to this quarrel will be all the deeper for the performance given last night.

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