Northern Ireland news

Arlene Foster's spad leaked confidential government documents to business associates

Andrew Crawford shared numerous government documents with associates outside his department

ARLENE Foster's former special adviser regularly shared confidential government documents with business people and associates – including Peter Robinson's lobbyist son – the RHI inquiry has heard.

Andrew Crawford emailed internal departmental information to Gareth Robinson, the Ulster Farmers Union's policy director Wesley Aston, and David Dobbin, the former head of one of the north's biggest dairy processors.

But Mr Crawford claimed his behaviour wasn't "rogue" and that he believes other ministers' special advisers would have also shared confidential information.

Yesterday's revelations about the former DUP spad's "casual flipping of information" came after it emerged on Wednesday that Mr Crawford had given a manager at Moy Park "insider information" about the Renewable Heat Incentive tariffs.

He has previously admitted sending details of proposed changes to the RHI scheme to family members with interests in the poultry sector.

Junior counsel for the inquiry, Joseph Aiken, spent much of yesterday's hearing highlighting instances dating as far back as 2010 where Mrs Foster's former spad shared Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Deti) documents with associates outside government.

On two occasions cited, Mr Crawford sent emails that included confidential information to lobbyist Gareth Robinson, the former DUP leader's son, who ran the PR company Verbatim Communications.

In one instance highlighted by Mr Aiken, a letter penned by Deti's solicitor concerning the then environment minister Mark H Durkan's adoption of the Belfast Metropolitan Area Plan (Bmap) – effectively blocking the John Lewis store at Sprucefield – was sent on to Gareth Robinson. He later deleted the sent email.

Deti had sought a judicial review of the SDLP's minister's decision, claiming it was a cross-cutting policy that went beyond a single department.

Though his recollection of the correspondence was unclear, Mr Crawford said he may have been asked to send the information by the then DUP leader or his adviser Richard Bullick.

He said his action was "clumsy" and claimed that he only meant to forward the body of the email rather than the attached legal letter.

Mr Crawford also shared confidential documents from a Whitehall department with the former first minister's son, who was representing a windfarm operator at the time.

In another instance, the former DUP spad sent answers prepared by the Deti press office for the BBC to the then head of United Dairy Farmers David Dobbin, who was due to take part in a panel discussion about energy costs organised by the broadcaster.

In a fourth example, unearthed from a trawl of Mr Crawford's email account, he sent an embargoed press release to Wesley Aston, now chief executive of the UFU.

He said sharing the press release more than a week before its embargo ended was to enable the farming lobby group to draft a positive response to the government announcement on the Agrifood Strategy Board.

Mr Crawford claimed the practice of issuing embargoed press releases to the UFU was common, especially in the Department of Agriculture.

Mr Aiken asked the witness if he wanted to reconsider previous evidence where he had rejected suggestions that he was in the habit of circulating confidential government information.

"I shouldn't have done it – it shouldn't have happened," Mr Crawford said of the leaks.

He also re-iterated his assertion that he did not become aware of how lucrative the RHI scheme was until he left Deti in May 2015.

Last night, Mr Durkan told The Irish News that Mr Crawford's email to Gareth Robinson renewed his concerns about Deti's challenge to his Bmap decision.

The former Stormont minister also said it was "very odd" that Mr Crawford deleted a sent email.

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