Arlene Foster denies DUP tried to deflect from ‘cash for ash’ scandal

Party leader provides written statement to inquiry into North’s botched energy scheme

DUP Leader Arlene Foster: Said there was “no party narrative” by the DUP to discredit former minister Jonathan Bell over the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme controversy. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

DUP Leader Arlene Foster: Said there was “no party narrative” by the DUP to discredit former minister Jonathan Bell over the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme controversy. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

DUP leader Arlene Foster has said there was no strategy by her party to deflect attention from its alleged involvement in delays in ending overspending in a flawed green energy scheme.

In a written statement to the inquiry into Northern Ireland’s so-called cash for ash scandal, Ms Foster has said there was “no party narrative” by the DUP to discredit former minister Jonathan Bell over the controversy.

Mr Bell, her party colleague and successor as enterprise minister, has claimed she ordered him to keep the scheme open and that he was the victim of a smear campaign by the DUP after he went public with his claims.

The DUP leader’s statement was published ahead of her giving evidence to the inquiry again today.

Led by retired judge Sir Patrick Coghlin, the inquiry is investigating, among other issues, why there were delays in the closure of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme. It was set up in 2012 when Ms Foster was enterprise minister to encourage farmers and businesses to switch from fossil fuel to biomass heating systems.

The failure to cap usage in the scheme and the generous subsidies offered to users for spending led to spiralling costs and a projected overspend running to hundreds of millions of pounds.

Peter Robinson speaks at Stormont Castle in November 2015 about his decision to step down as Northern Ireland first minister. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Asked why exposing former minister Jonathan Bell would mean “putting the boot into” Peter Robinson (above), Arlene Foster said: “That is a matter for Timothy Cairns to explain.” File photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Officials were aware of problems with the scheme in the summer of 2015 but cost controls were not introduced until November 2015, a delay that led to the highest costs being incurred by the scheme.

Cost overruns

The inquiry is now examining the role of the party’s special advisers to ministers during 2015, when civil servants wanted to rein in massive cost overruns in the energy scheme.

I cannot be sure what Timothy Cairns meant when he said ‘exposed’

The scandal led to the collapse of the powersharing government at Stormont in January 2017 when the late Sinn Féin deputy first minister Martin McGuinness resigned in protest at the DUP’s alleged handling of the scheme.

At an earlier inquiry hearing, Timothy Cairns, a former DUP special adviser to Mr Bell, said he was prepared to go along with the party’s narrative about the RHI when details of the scheme emerged in December 2016.

Ms Foster was asked by the inquiry about a text message Mr Cairns sent to another DUP special adviser, Richard Bullock, in December 2016, in which he said he believed Mr Bell “needs to be exposed” but that he couldn’t expose his own part “without putting the boot into PR” – Peter Robinson, the former DUP leader.

In response, Ms Foster said she was “not aware of this text message” and “therefore I cannot be sure what Timothy Cairns meant when he said ‘exposed’.”

Asked why exposing Mr Bell would mean “putting the boot into” Mr Robinson, she said: “That is a matter for Timothy Cairns to explain.”

‘Monster’

In separate evidence received by the inquiry, David Gordon, a press secretary for the Northern Ireland Executive at the time the scheme’s failures became public, denied claims made by Mr Bell that Mr Gordon had referred to him in an email as a “monster who needed to be put to sleep” or that he was briefing against him.

Mr Gordon told the inquiry Mr Bell’s allegation was based on a misinterpretation of an email sent in December 2016 to a special adviser containing “a Frankenstein metaphor/joke in connection with a possible public statement” by Mr Robinson, who had appointed Mr Bell as a minister.

“Clearly, an attempt at humour in a private email does not remotely constitute evidence of briefing against Mr Bell, let alone a conspiracy,” Mr Gordon told the inquiry.

“Metaphors are not meant to be taken literally. I was not suggesting that Mr Robinson had fathered Mr Bell or created him in a lab. Nor was I proposing that the former first minister or anyone else should actually put him to sleep. Similarly, I was not claiming or briefing that Mr Bell was actually a monster.”