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RHI: DUP's Arlene Foster and three ex-Spads to attend inquiry

DUP leader Arlene Foster, and former party special advisers John Robinson, Stephen Brimstone and Timothy Johnston
Brendan Hughes

ARLENE Foster and three former DUP special advisers will attend the RHI inquiry next week in what is set to deliver more political drama.

The schedule was published yesterday ahead of the return of oral hearings today and tomorrow, with Invest NI chief executive Alastair Hamilton and former Moy Park chief executive Janet McCollum among those giving evidence.

DUP leader Mrs Foster, who first appeared before the inquiry in April, will give evidence next Tuesday. Her account is expected to face more scrutiny this time in light other witnesses' evidence since her last appearance.

The DUP's chief executive Timothy Johnston, a former special adviser (Spad) to three DUP first ministers including Mrs Foster, will give evidence on Friday.

He is set to face questions over claims made to the inquiry that he was involved in delaying RHI cost controls, which he denies.

The DUP's director of communications John Robinson, a former party Spad, will appear on Wednesday.

Mr Robinson stood aside from any involvement in the RHI scheme after it emerged his father-in-law was an RHI scheme recipient.

The inquiry will also hear on Wednesday and Thursday from former DUP Spad Stephen Brimstone. Both he and his brother Aaron benefited from the RHI scheme.

In June, a civil servant told the inquiry that Mr Brimstone phoned him to ask about getting a boiler registered. It was claimed he gave his name but did not say he was a DUP Spad.

Stuart Wightman, the head of the energy efficiency branch in the Department of Trade, Enterprise and Investment, said he remembered the call for being "quite unusual" and believed Mr Brimstone "referenced Andrew Crawford", another DUP Spad.

"At that stage, I just thought it was a general applicant, so I would just have treated the telephone call like any other applicant wanting to find out how to apply for either scheme and I talked him through the process and referred him to the website and so forth," Mr Wightman said.

He added: "So there was nothing unusual, apart from the start of the telephone conversation.

"But the name Brimstone, afterwards, I sort of recognised, 'I know that name,' and it was subsequent to that I realised who he was, a special adviser."

As a Spad to former DUP minister Nelson McCausland, Mr Brimstone was at the centre of a Stormont inquiry into claims of political interference in the Housing Executive (NIHE).

In 2013, he was accused of bullying colleague and DUP councillor Jenny Palmer by telling her to change her vote on the NIHE board in relation to a contract involving Red Sky, a firm which later went bankrupt.

Mr Brimstone denied any wrongdoing and the incident resulted in Mrs Palmer defecting to the UUP. Mr Brimstone was then promoted to the first minister's office.

In November 2016, Mr Brimstone left his £92,000-a-year post to pursue a career in the private sector.

Today the inquiry will hear from Alastair Nicol, a heating consultant who worked for a firm to inspect boiler installations, and Jim Clarke of Invest NI.

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