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DUP's Jim Wells says Arlene Foster 'at ease' with RHI report findings

Party leadership breathing easy after seeing excerpts of inquiry, says frozen-out former health minister Wells

South Down MLA Jim Wells with DUP leader Arlene Foster in April 2016
South Down MLA Jim Wells with DUP leader Arlene Foster in April 2016

By Noel McAdam

Senior DUP figures will avoid damning criticism in the upcoming RHI report, a veteran party member has predicted.

Former minister Jim Wells said leader Arlene Foster, chief executive Timmy Johnston and former spad Andrew Crawford did not appear to be overly worried about the probe.

The South Down MLA, who has lost the party whip, claimed all senior DUP figures involved in the investigation, including press officer John Robinson, had seen excerpts from the report and had been given the opportunity to respond.

"Arlene, Timothy Johnston, Andrew Crawford and John Robinson have all seen the extracts of the RHI report that refer to them," he said.

"The body language of most of them hardly indicates that they are under a lot of stress."

Mr Wells spoke out after it emerged that the results of the investigation by Sir Patrick Coghlin were unlikely to be made public until next year, with the retired judge's team confirming that the official report remains a "work-in-progress".

DUP veteran Mr Wells, who earlier in the year told this newspaper he would sit as an independent MLA if the Assembly was restored, was invited to attend the DUP's recent party conference but received no welcome from its top team.

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Afterwards, the MLA said he would not accept the party whip under the current leadership, which he referred to as "the thought police".

However, he added: "I suspect that a change of leadership would alter my position radically, but it's hard to see that happening soon.

"I am happily living in the political wilderness. I have had no contact with the thought police for over a year and it's a wonderful experience.

"I last met the party officers on October 28 last year (and) was promised a further meeting. Despite 15 requests from me, that has never happened.

"Initially, I was told that they were busy, which is very true, but all of my later requests were ignored.

"So, after 43 years as a party member, I have been let down badly by the party leadership.

"Should the Assembly meet again, I would sit as an independent unionist."

Mr Wells was punished after he criticised senior party members over claims they failed to honour a promise to give the health portfolio back to him - an allegation which former DUP leader Peter Robinson denied.

He also claimed that the party failed to publicly back him after he was vindicated in a court case following false claims that he had linked child abuse to same-sex marriage in remarks at a public meeting in Downpatrick.

Even if Sir Patrick's report was completed in the near future, it is unlikely it would be published during the 'purdah' period leading up to the General Election and the Christmas break at Westminster soon afterwards.

January will mark three years since the then Sinn Fein Finance Minister Mairtin O Muilleoir announced the inquiry into the botched green energy scheme, which had flaws in how it was designed, operated and managed.

The probe has proved difficult for the DUP, with witness testimonies revealing sour relations and dysfunction across the party.

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