Northern Ireland news

RHI inquiry hears of limited records of exchanges between DUP Spads

Jonathan Bell claims his efforts to curb the RHI scheme were thwarted by DUP spads, a claim they have rejected

THERE are limited records of exchanges between DUP special advisers during the period they are alleged to have frustrated efforts to curb the Renewable Heat Incentive's (RHI) lucrative subsidies, the inquiry into Stormont's botched green energy scheme has heard.

Inquiry counsel David Scoffield QC said the majority of communications between the key parties were over the phone or at meetings where no minutes were taken.

Mr Scoffield was speaking as the RHI inquiry began focussing on the period during mid-2015 when the scheme began running vastly over-budget, fuelled by a huge spike in applications.

Arlene Foster's successor at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, Jonathan Bell, claims his attempts to close the scheme were persistently frustrated by DUP special advisers, including Timothy Johnston, Andrew Crawford and his own Spad Tim Cairns.

Mr Johnston, now DUP chief executive, was working as adviser to then first minister Peter Robinson, while Mr Crawford was fulfilling a similar role for Mrs Foster at the Department of Finance.

The former Spads have denied Mr Bell's claim, which Mr Scoffield yesterday characterised as "highly contentious".

The inquiry has trawled the key protagonists' email accounts and mobile phone records but, according to the inquiry counsel, in most cases the information does go back to 2015.

He said in some cases people had cleared out their inbox and returned government issue phones, which were subsequently wiped.

"I think it's fair to say that there's less of a paper-trail in terms of relevant communications between Spads than this inquiry would have liked to have seen," Mr Scoffield said.

Consequently, he said the inquiry would be relying on witness statements and oral evidence.

He said the inquiry panel may wish to consider whether there may have been a practice among special advisers and civil servants to ensure "embarrassing or controversial material" was not recorded.

The inquiry also heard that a key meeting in August 2015 which approved a six-week delay in cost controls was not minuted.

In that period the number of boilers accredited to the scheme almost doubled.

The inquiry heard that the delay was agreed after a request by Mr Cairns, who will claim Mr Bell accepted it without "question or comment".

The inquiry was also told of a row in a London Indian restaurant in June 2015 involving Mr Bell and Mr Cairns.

Mr Bell is said to have told his special adviser he would not be coming to a meeting with then Whitehall minister Amber Rudd, prompting Mr Cairns to fly home without attending the meeting.

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