Former DUP Minister denies he swung a punch at his special adviser
Jonathan Bell alleges senior party pressure exerted on him to delay capping cash for ash scheme
Jonathan Bell says an alleged incident where he reportedly “swung a punch” at his special adviser never happened. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA
In written evidence to the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) inquiry this week senior civil servant Dr Andrew McCormick referred to an allegation that Mr Bell tried to hit and break the finger of Mr Cairns.
Mr Bell in a written submission to the RHI inquiry published on Wednesday evening said “no such incident took place”.
Mr Bell, who is to give oral evidence to the inquiry on Thursday, also claimed that he was subjected to pressure by senior party advisers to delay applying cost controls on the bungled scheme which was designed to encourage farmers and businesses to switch to eco-friendly boiler heating systems.
Mr Bell alleged that when he was Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment in June/July 2015 that his special adviser Timothy Cairns told him he did not want the cash for ash issue on the ministerial agenda for discussion.
Mr Bell said Mr Cairns issued this instruction in the presence of the then Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) permanent secretary Andrew McCormick.
Mr Bell said that when the issue thereafter was raised, Mr Cairns referred to current DUP chief executive Timothy Johnston (then adviser to First Minister Peter Robinson), Andrew Crawford (then adviser to then finance Minister Arlene Foster) and the DUP press officer John Robinson as not wanting “the RHI scheme to be on the agenda”.
Dr McCormick, who gave oral evidence to the inquiry through Tuesday and Wednesday, said he did not “recall any resistance” from DUP special advisers to the scheme being placed on the agenda at DETI ministerial meetings. “That’s the kind of thing I would remember,” he said.
Mr Bell, in his written evidence, claimed that Mr Cairns, acting on the instructions of Timothy Johnston and Andrew Crawford sought to pressurise him into delaying putting a cap on the RHI scheme.
In May 2015 it finally became clear to Stormont officials and some Ministers that there were flaws in the scheme that could result in a multi-million pound overspend. For every £1 that users spent on their wood pellet heating systems they got back £1.60 in subsidies. It was subsequently estimated that the overspend over a 20-year period will be close to £500 million, with Northern Ireland taxpayers having to foot that bill.
But it wasn’t until November 2015 that cost controls were placed on the scheme.
Mr Bell said that in February 2016 he announced that he was closing the overall scheme. He said he was thereafter called to a meeting with the then DUP First Minister Arlene Foster who instructed him to keep the scheme open. She subsequently sought to have the scheme extended by two weeks, which happened.
Mr Bell also recounted how in December 2016 he agreed to do an interview with the BBC’s Stephen Nolan – an interview that was the springboard for much of the controversy over the RHI scheme. Mr Bell said he did so in the public interest.
A DUP spokesman said the party could not comment on the allegations until the inquiry was completed.