How DUP ex-MLA Jonathan Bell set cash-for-ash scandal ablaze
Television interview with Stephen Nolan turned up heat on Arlene Foster in Stormont
Deep in the belly of Broadcasting House in central Belfast, Jonathan Bell’s silver-white head was bowed in prayer.
On his knees, the man, who just seven months earlier had been part of the DUP’s powerful team of Stormont ministers, was being prayed for by two elderly associates who laid their hands on the politician’s shoulders as the television cameras rolled.
BBC staff looked on bemused as one of the men – who despite being under hot studio lights was still wearing an overcoat necessary on a cold Belfast night – prayed: “We ask for the power of thy Holy Spirit to come upon Jonathan and those who interview him, that you will direct them in all that they think and say, that at the end of the day we all will have been done [sic] for the glory of Christ. Father, hear our prayer, for Christ’s sake. Amen.”
As Bell rose, the two allies who had joined him – the politician’s father, Pastor Fergus Bell, and an intriguing businessman called Ken Cleland – slapped him on the back.
But while the scene added a layer of spiritual intrigue which even for Northern Ireland’s religiously infused political landscape was rare, the two protagonists in the studio knew that a brutal political defenestration was about to begin.
Bell, a self-confident character who had always been disliked by many of his colleagues, had been around politics for long enough to understand that his words would critically destabilise his party leader, Arlene Foster, already embroiled in a financial scandal that had been leading news bulletins for more than a week.
Foster had set up the renewable heat incentive (RHI) scheme in 2012 when she was Stormont’s minister for enterprise, trade and investment. But by now she was first minister and it had been revealed that the scheme had not only been a financial disaster projected to cost Stormont about £500 million (€571 million), but that a whistleblower had contacted Foster personally just months after the subsidy had been launched.
It was Bell who had succeeded Foster and it was on his watch that the RHI had run wildly out of control. For weeks before his interview, rumours were swirling around Stormont’s corridors and Belfast’s newsrooms about multiple alleged DUP links to the lucrative scheme and suspicions about some of those who had managed to get in before it was shut.
Seated opposite Bell that night in December 2016 was a big beast of broadcasting: Stephen Nolan, BBC Northern Ireland’s aggressive and populist presenter, whose daily radio programme reached more people than any other outlet.
By Wednesday, December 14th, 2016, the day the interview was recorded ahead of broadcast the following night, Bell had been talking to Nolan for a full week.
Bell was a willing interviewee and quickly got to the point. He was there to unburden his soul about his role in keeping open the disastrous green-energy subsidy – and to accuse some of the DUP’s most senior figures of deliberately stopping him from reining in the scheme.
For an audience who had been given teasers about the dramatic nature of what was to be said in the interview recorded a day earlier, the first image they saw of the politician – kneeling in a television studio – was compelling.
A few moments later, seated languidly across a studio desk from Nolan, Bell’s opening words were dramatic: “I have undertaken before God that I will tell you the truth and yes hundreds of millions of pounds has been committed and significant amounts of money have been spent. I am authorising every detail, every document, every civil service document that I signed, every submission that I signed, to be made publicly available and to be examined exactly as the truth I now give you.”
Bell went on to allege that his special adviser (special advisers are known as spads for short) had told him that two other powerful spads – Timothy Johnston, the DUP’s most senior backroom figure, and Andrew Crawford, Foster’s long-standing adviser – were “not allowing this scheme to be closed”.
Johnston later said that he gave no instruction to delay cost controls and that he did not know enough about RHI at that point to have given such an order. Crawford said his behind-the-scenes interventions in the period that the scheme was bleeding money were designed to he helpful to his successor as spad in the department and were not an attempt to delay cost controls.
Within the DUP’s ultra-centralised structure, spads were people of immense power. In focusing his attention on them, Bell was aiming at the beating heart of the DUP.
The constant references to God gave Bell’s interview a confessional quality, which attempted to elevate it above the dirty world of politics.
His interview was littered with the insistence that he was telling the truth; the late Ian Paisley had exhorted him to tell the truth, his wife that morning had told him to tell the truth, even God had told him to tell the truth.
The broadcast contained a slew of remarkable allegations against the DUP which the party would later deny. As it concluded, his voice cracked as he said that he had tears in his eyes because “children are dying” as a result of the health service losing money. “The regret that I ultimately have now, when we’re seeing terminally ill children being sent home from hospital, is that I didn’t resign . . . I think we all should hang our heads in shame for what has occurred.”
It was an explosive, gripping performance. But although some of what Bell was revealing was accurate, other parts were nonsensical and demonstrated how little the former minister knew about the scheme for which he had been responsible. Sceptical viewers might also have wondered why he had not thought to tell the public about this for almost a year – until the point where he thought he was going to be blamed.
The interview was seen by a massive audience – 56 per cent of everyone in Northern Ireland watching television at that time tuned in – and had an explosive political impact. Multiple sources who were present at the Stormont Executive meeting on the day the interview was recorded are clear that Sinn Féin deputy first minister Martin McGuinness was working collaboratively with Foster and civil servants to defuse the crisis.
That day they asked a senior civil servant to explore a limited behind-closed-doors investigation into what had gone on. Bell’s performance blew apart that plan and put devolution on the path to probable – though not inevitable – collapse.
Two days later, McGuinness phoned Foster to ask her to step aside as first minister while the scandal was investigated. Foster, not known for her malleability, refused and McGuinness then made his request public. By that point, it would be a sign of weakness to step aside to satisfy Sinn Féin. Three weeks later McGuinness would resign, ejecting Foster from office and triggering an election followed by which Northern Ireland’s two dominant parties have not been able to agree to govern.
Almost a year later, at the opening of the public inquiry into the cash-for-ash scandal, a section of the Bell interview was played on video screens in Stormont’s old senate chamber – where for 111 days witnesses would give evidence about the scandal.
David Scoffield QC, senior counsel to the inquiry, described the interview as “probably unprecedented in contemporary Northern Ireland politics as an example of a former minister turning on senior party colleagues”.
But until now the story behind that theatrical and bitter split with his party has never been told.
It began a full week before he recorded the interview. Bell rang Nolan. The broadcaster invited the former minister to his salubrious home on the shores of Strangford Lough that day.
Bell did not hold back. What he had would blow the government wide open, he claimed. What Nolan did not know was that the man in front of him was secretly recording him, something he would admit to several days later.
The following night, Bell returned to Nolan’s home. This time the BBC man was joined by three of his senior backroom team.
Bell, who agreed for the meeting to be recorded so that the journalists could fact-check his claims, positioned himself at the end of the dining room table. With a tape recorder in front of him, he opened up.
He had brought audio recordings and bulky paper files from his old department to back up his riveting tale. Some of what he said has never been broadcast for legal reasons and because it is not clear whether it is accurate. He referred to allegations that one senior DUP politician had been having an affair with another politician and that another senior DUP member had taken drugs.
Seamlessly, he would shift from those lurid tales of alleged iniquity to impressing upon his listeners the fervency of his faith. Over coming days, Bell would repeatedly tell Nolan that God had told him to come to him with the story.
Showing remarkable trust in the journalists, at Bell’s own suggestion he handed over the password for his personal email account, which he had used for government business, and gave them permission to search through it for any relevant material.
But although he wanted the BBC to do the story, he did not want to be seen as their source. Bell told them that if they did the story he would then come out after it to confirm that what had been said was accurate.
Several days into the contact with Bell, he arranged for Nolan to meet him at an isolated spot near his Co Down home. Nolan parked beside Bell’s car and the MLA got into the passenger seat. After a brief conversation, he handed over an audio recorder containing a secret recording of a senior civil servant.
As Nolan drove back to Belfast he listened to what he had been given. Whether deliberately or inadvertently, the recording finished and another conversation played. This time it was a conversation between Bell and former first minister Peter Robinson. They were discussing what Bell was doing and whether he should go to the Times or to Nolan with his story.
Robinson sounded cautious in what he said, with Bell driving the conversation. Nevertheless, the involvement of Robinson – just a year after he had stepped down as DUP leader – added a new layer of intrigue to what was unfolding.
By Monday evening, it seemed that Bell would not do an interview, though he had given enough material for a one-off television programme. The following night there would be a furtive meeting between the journalists and Bell, which would be decisive.
The BBC had booked a room in the Holiday Inn, a mid-market hotel across the road from Broadcasting House. Arriving separately, the politician, his aide Cleland and the three journalists gradually entered the bedroom.
Cleland was a figure whose role has not been fully understood. One BBC source described him as “the strategist” who referred throughout to himself and Bell as “we”, and it appeared to the journalists that Cleland was the key figure who had to be convinced if Bell was to talk.
During the half-hour meeting, a deal was struck, with Bell giving his word that if the Nolan Show revealed parts of the story the following morning on BBC Radio Ulster, then he would do a television interview.
The next morning, the programme made a series of revelations based on Bell’s conversation, his secret recordings and the paperwork he had turned over.
Cleland was delighted with the coverage and Bell agreed to now come and be interviewed for television.
Cleland was a somewhat mysterious figure, known to many at Stormont and an associate of some senior DUP figures. He and his wife had been extremely close to Robinson and his wife Iris.
Robinson had trusted Cleland with a sensitive Stormont appointment, putting him on the board of the Maze Long Kesh Development Corporation, a body with responsibility for developing the economically significant and potentially lucrative site of the former Maze Prison, but whose work was riven with political arguments.
Days before Bell broke ranks, he and Cleland had visited one of Stormont’s most senior civil servants, Andrew McCormick.
McCormick, who they knew to be an evangelical Christian, later pondered whether they had engineered the encounter to make it seem like they were motivated by high religious principle so that he would lower his guard.
He recalled that they presented themselves as “seekers after truth, indeed potentially as ‘agents of righteousness’”. Cleland proceeded to inform the mandarin that he had arrived bearing a prophecy about Bell. The self-proclaimed prophet went on to predict that Bell would be vindicated over RHI.
The agent of righteousness then admonished the civil servant: “We’ve got to be very careful what our motivations are here . . . and we’re not going to allow any motivation which is a wrong motivation, because God will not bless that.”
Proximity to Robinson
But what was their real motivation? The proximity of both men to Robinson and the former first minister’s discussion with Bell about his tell-all interview in this period led to speculation within the DUP as to whether Bell was acting as part of some wider plan.
Prior to visiting McCormick, Bell had discussed the issue with Robinson, who advised him that as a former minister he could go and ask for documentation from the department.
Robinson did not have many close friends and was wary of several senior colleagues whose loyalty he suspected
Bell was closer to Robinson than any other DUP MLA and was reverential towards him. Bell employed Robinson’s son, Jonathan, as his constituency office manager and Robinson’s daughter-in-law as his secretary. At a time when as DUP leader Robinson felt under internal threat he rewarded his friend’s loyalty, promoting him to junior minister in 2011 and then a full Stormont minister in 2015 – a decision which inadvertently led to Bell taking responsibility for RHI at the point where it was about to fall apart.
One Stormont source who observed the DUP at the closest of quarters over more than a decade said: “Peter could ask Johnny to murder someone and he’d do it.” That metaphor could not have been used for many of the others around Robinson. He had always been feared and respected within the DUP rather than loved.
Robinson did not have many close friends and was wary of several senior colleagues whose loyalty he suspected. But Bell’s devotion to the DUP leader was such that while still a minister – and around the time that RHI was falling apart – he began work on a PhD about his party leader and told colleagues that Robinson had agreed to turn over some of his personal papers to him for the academic study.
During his interview, Nolan asked the 46-year-old politician: “Are you involved in a coup to take Arlene Foster down?” Bell replied: “Nothing, as God is my judge, could be further from the truth.”
The picture is further complicated by comments Cleland and Bell made to the BBC journalists as they discussed the story in that period. Both men gave the impression that they were concerned about Foster’s leadership, seeing it as an attempt to liberalise the party and move it away from its religious roots.
If that was a significant motive for what Bell did, it does not sit easily with the idea that Robinson was in any way orchestrating what was going on.
Robinson was the man who had spent years gradually modernising and moderating the DUP. He had a vision of the party replacing the Ulster Unionist Party as the dominant party of unionism, and knew that to do so meant reaching beyond the narrow world of Protestant evangelicalism.
When contacted for this research, Robinson was reluctant to explain why he had discussed with Bell whether to go to the Times or Nolan and whether he was encouraging him to speak out as he did.
Instead, he responded with a solicitor’s letter which claimed that what had been put to him was “replete with inaccuracies and defamatory content”. The letter did not specify anything which was actually inaccurate but threatened that “in the event that publication of inaccurate and defamatory material occurs our clients are fully prepared to issue appropriate legal proceedings”.
After Bell’s interview, what prior to the programme would have seemed preposterous – that Foster, a popular and politically secure leader, could be out of office within months – had become plausible.
Though deeply wounded, she would survive – but at the expense of devolution itself.
Burned: the Inside Story of the ‘Cash-for-Ash’ Scandal and Northern Ireland’s Secretive New Elite is published today by Merrion Press