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DUP's Andrew Crawford 'blocked Stormont release of bonfire row emails'

Former DUP special adviser Andrew Crawford, and inset, how The Irish News revealed an environment official considered a DUP minister's lighting of a bonfire as an "offence"
Brendan Hughes

ARLENE Foster's RHI scandal-hit special adviser blocked civil servants from releasing documents exposing a DUP minister embroiled in a bonfire controversy.

Andrew Crawford – who now advises the DUP on Brexit – did not approve the publication of emails relating to Paul Givan lighting a bonfire over the Twelfth.

The emails revealed Mr Givan's actions in July 2016 when he was communities minister were considered "an offence" by a senior Stormont environmental official.

Mr Givan was investigated and was provided with "advice" by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) as part of a "proportional response".

But the internal papers, obtained by The Irish News through Freedom of Information (FOI) laws, were only published following Stormont's collapse – and seven months after the request was made.

FOI legislation requires public bodies to respond to information requests promptly and within 20 working days.

Former DUP communities minister Paul Givan lighting an Eleventh Night bonfire in 2016

The emails were released by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (Daera).

It has now been confirmed Daera operated a policy whereby FOI responses required approval from the minster's special adviser (Spad) before they could be released.

The DUP's Michelle McIlveen was Daera minister at the time and her Spad was Andrew Crawford – a former Spad to DUP leader Mrs Foster and a central figure in the RHI inquiry, which finished public evidence sessions last month.

When asked why the FOI took seven months to be released, Daera yesterday apologised for the delay.

Philip Gilmore, head of Daera's data protection and information management branch, said: "Part of the procedure at that time included passing all draft responses to the departmental private office and responses being held until the minister's special adviser had noted the contents.

"In-keeping with those procedures your FOI request was forwarded to the departmental private office on August 5 2016 for clearance through the minister's special adviser.

"There is no record of why your FOI request was not cleared for issue at that time.

"However following the suspension of the NI Assembly in January 2017 a review of outstanding FOIs was undertaken and the permanent secretary at that time, gave approval for outstanding cases to be released."

Mr Gilmore said the department remains committed to ensuring the vast majority of FOI requests "are responded to within the required timescale".

Daera's emails related to Irish News queries about Mr Givan lighting an Eleventh Night bonfire at the opening of a new Orange lodge football pitch near Augher.

An image of Mr Givan lighting the pyre had attracted controversy online, with some questioning the environmental impact of bonfires.

The DUP and DUP-led Stormont departments had remained silent, but the FOI response revealed how the media queries were discussed by NIEA officials.

The FOI emails also showed the queries were sent to Mr Crawford, who replied: "This is a load of nonsense. I would ignore it rather than responding."

It comes amid questions raised by the Renewable Heat Incentive inquiry over Stormont transparency.

Earlier this year, Stormont's chief civil servant told the inquiry that some meetings were deliberately not minuted to avoid FOI disclosures.

David Sterling's comments have prompted an investigation by the Information Commissioner's Office to assess the Northern Ireland Civil Service's compliance with FOI.

Mr Crawford was Mrs Foster's Spad when she launched the RHI scheme in 2012 as enterprise minister.

He resigned as a DUP Spad in January 2017 after a senior civil servant alleged he exerted influence over the delays in curbing the RHI scheme's overgenerous tariffs. He denies wrongdoing.

Mr Crawford is currently employed by the DUP in a part-time role advising on Brexit issues.

At the DUP's annual conference on Saturday, Mrs Foster said the party was "deeply sorry" for how it handled the flawed RHI green energy scheme.

She told the conference there were many lessons to be learned from RHI, including how Spads and the civil service operate.

The DUP yesterday did not respond to requests for a comment.

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