RHI Inquiry hears claim DUP Minister ‘swung a punch’ at adviser

‘Dysfunctional’ relationship may have contributed to cash for ash debacle, inquiry told

Former DUP Minister Jonathan Bell. Photograph: Getty

Former DUP Minister Jonathan Bell. Photograph: Getty

 

The Renewable Heating Incentive inquiry has heard an allegation that a former DUP Minister tried to punch his special adviser and break his finger.

A “dysfunctional” relationship between former DUP Minister Jonathan Bell and one of his special advisers may have contributed to failures to resolve the cash for ash scandal, a senior Northern Ireland civil servant told the inquiry on Tuesday.

Andrew McCormick, in a witness statement submitted to the inquiry, referred to the poor relationship between Mr Bell and his then DUP special adviser Timothy Cairns.

Witness statements from Mr McCormick have been published on the RHI Inquiry website.

It emerged through written questions posed to Mr McCormick by the RHI Inquiry team that Mr Cairns had referred “to a series of incidents in respect of which he appears to allege that Mr Bell tried to break his finger and swung a punch at him”.

Mr McCormick, who is set to give oral evidence to the inquiry on Tuesday afternoon, said he was unaware of this allegation apart from seeing references to the alleged incident in inquiry documents.

Mr McCormick, who is now the Northern Ireland director general of International Relations for Brexit was permanent secretary in Mr Bell’s Department of Enterprise, Trade and Industry at the time of the alleged breakdown in the relationship between the Minister and his special adviser.

A failure to put a cap on the scheme designed to encourage use of eco-friendly boiler heating systems could result in an overspend of about £490 million (€540 million) to be borne by the Northern Ireland taxpayer.

Mr McCormick in his witness statements did refer to how, in the period from May 2015 to May 2016, there were great difficulties in the relationship between Mr Bell and his then special adviser Mr Cairns.

“I think that in practice the relationship between Jonathan Bell and Timothy Cairns became increasingly dysfunctional, and that breakdown of trust and communication led to some of the confusion and difficulty that affected the RHI issue,” said Mr McCormick.

Trade missions

Part of Mr Bell’s responsibility as Minister included engaging in international trade missions and bringing foreign jobs investment to Northern Ireland.

Mr McCormick referred to “several awkward incidents” arising from a trade mission to the United States in January 2016 run by Invest NI and Mr Bell’s department, and which was led by Mr Bell.

Mr McCormick referred to conversations with Invest NI colleagues and how they “commented on Jonathan Bell’s limited contribution to the projection of Northern Ireland’s interests in relation to foreign direct Investment and trade”.

The civil servant adverted to an impression of Mr Bell’s “limited capacity to contribute effectively, and the risk of him making inappropriate or unhelpful comments even before the trip took place”.

“For example, it was noted that Jonathan Bell was visibly tired at a key meeting on Friday 28th, January 2016,” added Mr McCormick in his statement.

“The context for this was that I had accompanied him and Niall Gibbons of Tourism Ireland for a meal and some drinks the previous evening, and although I left them when I felt the need to sleep, I was told later that Jonathan Bell had had quite a late night,” he continued.

Mr McCormick said the impression was that at the meeting the following day Mr Bell was “unable to participate fully in the meeting in a constructive way, as I would have hoped”.

Mr McCormick also told the inquiry that another trade mission scheduled for the period around St Patrick’s Day 2016 was “scaled back” so that Mr Bell “would not be required to travel”.

The then First Minister and Deputy First Minister Peter Robinson and the late Martin McGuinness were on that trip.

Said Mr McCormick, “There are indications that Jonathan Bell resented this decision - and I inferred that as a direct consequence of his resentment over this matter he delayed providing routine authorisation of Invest NI briefing and travel in support of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister.”

Mr Bell is due to give evidence to the inquiry on Thursday and Friday.