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Arlene Foster and Simon Hamilton 'played down senior spad's role in delaying cost controls'

Arlene Foster and Simon Hamilton were among the DUP 'key players' who sought to minimise Timothy Johnston's role in delaying RHI cost controls. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA Wire

'KEY players' in the DUP sought to minimise senior special adviser Timothy Johnston's role in delaying RHI cost controls, one of his former counterparts has claimed.

Andrew Crawford has said DUP leader Arlene Foster and former finance minister Simon Hamilton were among those involved in efforts to distance Mr Johnston from any involvement in frustrating a cut in the scheme's generous subsidies during the summer of 2015.

Mr Johnston was appointed to the newly-created role of DUP chief executive last year. The RHI inquiry has previously heard he was "very much top of the tree" in the hierarchy of DUP advisers.

Mr Crawford, who is due to give evidence to the inquiry today, resigned from his role as a DUP spad in January last year after senior civil servant Andrew McCormick told Stormont's Public Accounts Committee (PAC) that he had sought to delay the imposition of cost controls.

The former spad to Mrs Foster during much of the time the RHI was operating denies he had any role in hindering the curbs.

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In his latest written evidence to the inquiry, which is on foot of Mr Crawford's previous appearances earlier this year, he claims the account Mr McCormick gave to the PAC was based on what fellow spad Timothy Cairns had told the civil servant and that he "did not have objective evidence to support the allegation".

Mr Crawford says documents provided by the inquiry show that the DUP personnel involved in dealing with the RHI controversy were "not taking steps to contradict or dispel the narrative" that he had been responsible for delaying cost controls.

He says they "did acquiesce in the naming of me by Andrew McCormick".

"By contrast, there did appear to be attempts made to distance Timothy Johnston from any involvement," Mr Crawford's statement says.

He says a December 2016 speech to the assembly by then first minister Mrs Foster at the height of public outcry over RHI was constructed in such a way that "it allowed the interpretation that I had been involved" in delaying the cost controls.

Mr Crawford said none of the party officers investigating the issue ahead of the speech asked for his version of events.

"I found this particularly upsetting," he says.

When asked in a written question by the inquiry who the DUP "key players" involved in dealing with the fallout from the RHI scandal were, Mr Crawford identifies Mrs Foster, Mr Hamilton and Mr Johnston, as well as former special advisers Richard Bullick and John Robinson, a brother-in-law of Mr Johnston.

Asked why the DUP was keen to "deflect or discredit any possible reference to Timothy Johnston", Mr Crawford says he does not know.

"It may have been the case that I was viewed as expendable whereas Timothy Johnston was not," he says.

Notably, Mr Crawford, whose poultry farmer brother is an RHI claimant, maintains that neither he or Mr Johnston were involved in seeking to delay the introduction of cost controls.

The former spad's latest written evidence also includes an admission that he removed a reference to the "poultry industry" in correspondence with the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister relating to RHI in February 2016.

Mr Crawford, a former policy officer with the Ulster Farmers Union, said he believed that the issues with the scheme were "wider".

"In particular, I believed the reference to poultry was singling out one particular sector when other sectors may also have contributed to the spike in applications, for example, installation of drying floors, fuelled by biomass," his statement says.

Around half the RHI's claimants were poultry farmers supplying Moy Park.

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