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RHI: Peter Robinson saw admitting guilt as weakness, says ex-DUP Spad

Former DUP minister Jonathan Bell with party leader Arlene Foster and ex-party leader Peter Robinson
Brendan Hughes

EX-DUP leader Peter Robinson saw admitting guilt as a "weakness", a former party special adviser has said as he branded Stormont politics a "grubby world".

Timothy Cairns claimed the former first minister "did nothing" about bullying allegations raised against DUP enterprise minister Jonathan Bell.

But the ex-special adviser (Spad) also admitted he was willing to omit Mr Robinson from the "party narrative" against Mr Bell surrounding RHI.

Mr Cairns was appearing for the first time at the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) inquiry yesterday after making a series of explosive allegations in witness statements.

The 44-year-old accused Mr Bell of repeated "bullying and aggressive behaviour" towards him, other DUP members and civil servants.

He also told of Mr Bell being intoxicated on a Stormont business trip to New York, and alleged the minister "rarely read his ministerial papers or briefing notes".

Mr Bell has denied Mr Cairns's allegations, and claimed he was the victim of a "smear campaign".

Mr Cairns was Mr Bell's Spad when he was minister at the Department of Enterprise Trade and Investment (Deti) from May 2015 to May 2016, which oversaw the RHI scheme.

The flawed RHI scheme was launched in 2012 but it was in summer 2015 that officials in Stormont's enterprise department became aware of its spiralling costs.

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At the inquiry, Mr Cairns was asked about a text message he sent to another Spad in December 2016 several days after a BBC Nolan Show interview with Mr Bell about RHI.

Mr Bell had alleged in the interview that two DUP Spads, Timothy Johnston and Andrew Crawford, intervened to delay the introduction of cost controls to RHI in autumn 2015 – and claimed DUP leader Arlene Foster "overruled" his bid to finally close the botched scheme in early 2016.

In the text message, Mr Cairns said Mr Bell "needs to be exposed", adding: "I will fit my story in with the party narrative and what is best for party."

Mr Cairns told the inquiry he meant he was willing to include or omit Mr Robinson from his story.

But inquiry chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin said: "It seems that the party may have a version which is closer or further away from the truth. That seems a rather unpleasant way to run a party."

Mr Cairns acknowledged he was prepared to go along with the DUP's official version of events.

Sir Patrick asked him: "And that's politics is it?"

Mr Cairns said: "That's politics I'm afraid – it's a grubby world."

Sir Patrick responded: "That's something of an understatement, if you don't mind me saying."

Mr Cairns concurred: "I think you are correct, Mr chairman."

However, he denied it amounted to trying to smear the former enterprise minister.

"I'm not sure if you're putting something forward that's true, that can be categorised as a smear," he said.

Sir Patrick said the "clear inference" was that Mr Cairns was prepared to modify his comments about Mr Bell to protect Mr Robinson.

Mr Cairns was also asked about the fall-out from a dispute with Mr Bell at a breakfast in London in June 2015.

He claimed Mr Bell tried to break his finger, but the former Spad acknowledged his "frustration bubbled over inappropriately" when he addressed the minister using the term "big b*lls".

Mr Cairns said that after the dispute, he had a meeting with then First Minister Peter Robinson and DUP Spad Timothy Johnston, who is now the party's chief executive.

Mr Cairns said Mr Bell had denied trying to break his finger, and it was clear Mr Robinson "was backing Jonathan in the matter".

The former Spad told the inquiry: "Mr Robinson was very clear, he [Mr Bell] denied it, and the weakness he seemed to find in me was that I would admit guilt at an early opportunity.

"That seemed to be a weak thing to do from Mr Robinson's perspective. I don't know if I would hold that view myself, but that seemed to be his."

Mr Cairns also suggested Mr Johnston, who was a Spad in the first minister's office, was involved in delaying cost controls for the RHI scheme in 2015.

He said it was mistakenly believed at the time that the RHI bill would be met by the UK government treasury rather than through the Northern Ireland block grant.

Mr Cairns claimed Mrs Foster knew about Mr Johnston's role in delaying closure, which she has denied.

The inquiry heard that both Mrs Foster and Mr Johnston denied any hierarchy among Spads, although Mrs Foster felt the first minister's Spads were given more weight.

But Mr Cairns said that at the time of RHI in 2015/16, Mr Johnston was second only to the party leader, describing them as the "top two echelons".

"Not one elected representative, not one party employee or special adviser did not recognise that Mr Johnston was at the top of tree within the Democratic Unionist Party," he added.

Much of Mr Cairns's oral evidence contradicted Mr Bell's version of events recounted to the inquiry last week.

Mr Bell claimed he had been kept in the dark over the costs of the RHI scheme spiralling, and denied he had ever threatened Mr Cairns.

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