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Arlene Foster 'knew special advisers' were involved in RHI scheme

Arlene Foster told the BBC that her Spad Timothy Johnston had played no part in delaying the imposition of RHI cost controls
 

DUP advisers were heavily involved in decisions to delay the introduction of RHI cost controls, a former adviser has claimed.

During his second day of evidence to the RHI Inquiry yesterday, ex-DUP adviser Timothy Cairns, who worked with former enterprise minister Jonathan Bell, claimed other party advisers were closely involved in decisions to delay the introduction of RHI cost controls.

And he said he mentioned this during a conference call which included DUP leader Mrs Foster in December 2016.

The 44-year-old said in June 2015 he was "directed" by adviser Timothy Johnston, now the DUP's chief executive, to liaise with senior adviser Dr Andrew Crawford over the RHI scheme.

 Andrew Crawford (left) and Timothy Cairns giving evidence to the RHI inquiry

He said Dr Crawford was clear "from the outset" that cost controls should be delayed to the latest date enterprise officials would agree to.

"My firm recollection is that we discussed the October 1 (2015) date and we discussed 'are we sure that is the latest date?' " he said.

"If officials would say that is the latest date then we would have to accept that."

Mr Cairns said it was unfortunate he had no email from Dr Crawford to confirm this policy.

He told the inquiry panel: "You've hit on a great flaw here - the lack of a paper trail", later adding "I was relying on phone calls".

The RHI scheme, which was designed to encourage people to use more eco-friendly technology, effectively paid users for burning fuel.

It eventually closed to new applicants in late February 2016. RHI is expected to cost taxpayers around £490 million.

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 Timothy Cairns (left) and Jonathan Bell

Mr Cairns admitted he had not told enterprise officials of Dr Crawford's influence.

He denied he was kept the information "secret" but said he should have been "more open".

"I should have been but there was no good reason for me not being," he said.

He said he had "no knowledge, no suspicion" that some of Dr Crawford's family were beneficiaries of the RHI scheme.

Mr Cairns also told the inquiry that Mr Johnston had "shut down" a conference call which included Mrs Foster after his name was linked to the scheme.

DUP special advisor Timothy Johnston Picture Mal McCann.

Ahead of Mr Bell's explosive interview with BBC journalist Stephen Nolan in December 2016, Mr Cairns said he had a phone call with senior DUP adviser Richard Bullick, Mr Johnston and Mrs Foster.

When asked about Dr Crawford's influence on delaying cost controls, Mr Cairns said he told Mr Johnston: "Timothy, you directed that".

He said Mr Johnston "shut the conversation down" and shortly afterwards the call ended.

Mr Cairns said Mr Bullick later contacted him to say that call was the first time Mr Johnston's name had been mentioned in connection with the RHI scheme.

In his written evidence, Mr Cairns said Mr Bullick told him Mr Johnston "was uncomfortable with my discussion of the June 2015 meeting, as up until that point he was adamant that he had played no role in RHI".

"However, my revelation had undermined his position," he said.

In an interview with Mr Nolan during the same programme as Mr Bell's claims were broadcast, Mrs Foster said she had no knowledge of her special advisers' roles in connection with RHI.

Mr Cairns said: "Either she had discounted what I said.. or she didn't then mention it in the interview when asked... or maybe she just forgot the telephone call immediately, I don't know."

The former special adviser agreed with inquiry counsel Donal Lunny that that the DUP's strategy led to enterprise officials agreeing a later closure date than they wanted.

But Mr Cairns said officials could also have objected.

"There was no pressure put on the officials," he said.

Responding to claims that DUP special advisers behaved as if they and enterprise officials were on opposing teams, Mr Cairns said: "If anybody felt we were on different teams, (I would have said) let's get on the same team again".

The inquiry will hear oral evidence from Dr Crawford today. It will be the second time he has given evidence.

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