Northern Ireland news

Peter Robinson says senior Spad did not have his authority to act on RHI

DUP special adviser Timothy Johnston may have been on a 'frolic of his own', the RHI inquiry heard. Picture by Mal McCann

FORMER senior DUP special adviser Timothy Johnston may have been on a "frolic of his own" as he allegedly directed his counterparts to keep the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) open, the inquiry has been told.

The inquiry into Stormont's botched green energy scheme yesterday heard claims that Mr Johnston – now DUP chief executive – told Jonathan Bell's former Spad Timothy Cairns to liaise with colleague Andrew Crawford about matters relating to RHI.

However, according to written evidence from former first minister Peter Robinson, his then adviser was not given the authority to fulfil this role.

Mr Robinson claims there was no party line on RHI and that he was unaware of any communication between Mr Johnston and anyone else relating to it.

According to inquiry counsel David Scoffield QC, if Mr Robinson's evidence is correct and Mr Cairns's claims about how Mr Johnston acted are also correct, then the senior DUP Spad may have been "on a frolic of his own, as lawyers sometimes say".

Inquiry chair Sir Patrick Coghlin noted that either Mr Robinson knew what was going on "or if he didn't know, the Spads were running the show".

In his written evidence, Mr Johnston insists he was not involved in any RHI decision making and that only Mr Robinson had the authority to give orders.

However, Mr Scoffield listed a series of correspondences where Mr Johnston received information on the RHI scheme, including an email from hotelier Howard Hastings that was forwarded from Mr Crawford.

Referring to the possibility of cost controls, the hotelier said to Arlene Foster's then Spad: "Not on your watch, surely?" .

Mr Scoffield also told the panel that they must decide whether a statement to the assembly by Arlene Foster showed the "candour that could be expected in the circumstances"

Ahead of the December 2016 speech in which she apologised for the flawed RHI scheme, the then Department for the Economy permanent secretary Andrew McCormick suggested an amendment to Mrs Foster's script, which he believed would give the fullest possible picture of what had happened.

He suggested to DUP Spad Richard Bullick that Mrs Foster include a line saying that Mr Bell had wanted to close the scheme and that "others in the party were pressing for the scheme to be kept open", because they mistakenly believed that the Treasury would meet the costs of the scheme.

Mrs Foster said the decision over the timing of cost controls had been entirely a matter for Mr Bell and that if anyone had made representations to him they were not acting with the "authority of the party".

Mr Scoffield said the panel would also have to consider whether the intense political atmosphere of the time lent itself to candour, or whether that should even have been a consideration.

The inquiry also heard about an email exchange involving the then Stormont executive press secretary David Gordon with Mr Bullick.

Discussing whether Mr McCormick should give an interview to the BBC addressing previous claims made by Mr Bell, Mr Gordon says that a statement released by the senior civil servant could deal with "the real story".

The executive press secretary said that "in an ideal world you would get the AC (Andrew Crawford) story out this week and spike the BBC".

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