Northern Ireland news

Jonathan Bell: Ex-DUP minister 'tried to break special adviser's finger'

Jonathan Bell's evidence to the RHI Inquiry begins on Thursday

A FORMER DUP minister at the centre of the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal "swung a punch" at his special adviser and "tried to break his finger", according to newly-released documents.

Jonathan Bell, a former enterprise minister, had a "dysfunctional" relationship with his adviser Timothy Cairns, a senior civil servant has said.

The claims have been revealed in a written witness statement to the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) inquiry from Andrew McCormick, who was the most senior official in Mr Bell's department at the time.

Mr McCormick is to give evidence to the inquiry this afternoon.

The botched RHI scheme, which effectively paid users to burn fuel, will cost taxpayers around £490 million.

In a lengthy statement, Mr McCormick alleged tensions between Mr Bell, Mr Cairns and other DUP colleagues including:

  • Mr Cairns was open about Mr Bell's 'limits' as a minister
  • On a trade mission to China, Mr Cairns was aware that Mr Bell’s "repeated personal anecdotes were not as effective in building trust and confidence as Jonathan Bell himself thought"
  • Arlene Foster stopped Mr Bell from travelling to the US for a trade delegation around St Patrick's Day 2016
  • During the same period in 2016 Mr Bell was "taking advice" from former DUP leader Peter Robinson
  • Mr Bell had a dispute with Mrs Foster after he wasn't invited to then London mayor Boris Johnson's visit to Wrightbus in Ballymena in February 2016
  • Mr Cairns was so open about relationships within the DUP he "exposed" civil servants to "matters which should have remained in the political sphere"

Senior civil servant Andrew McCormick will give evidence to the RHI inquiry this afternoon

In his statement, Mr McCormick suggested tensions between Mr Bell and Mr Cairns contributed to issues with the RHI scheme.

"I think that in practice the relationship between Jonathan Bell and Timothy Cairns became increasingly dysfunctional, and that breakdown of trust and communication led to some of the confusion and difficulty that affected the RHI issue," Mr McCormick wrote.

He said the tense relationship between Mr Bell and Mr Cairns had contributed to the department's difficulties in dealing with the crisis.

Timothy Cairns' relationship with Jonathan Bell has been described as 'dysfunctional'

In the summer of 2015, as concerns mounted about the scheme, Mr McCormick said there was "serious tension" between Mr Bell and Mr Cairns.

It later emerged Mr Cairns was only giving advice to Mr Bell after speaking to other advisers in the party. Mr McCormick said if his officials had been aware of this "we might have pressed for resolution" on the cost control issue.

The botched RHI scheme will cost taxpayers £490 million

In a written question, the inquiry asked Mr McCormick if he was aware of claims made in a text message from Timothy Cairns to former DUP special adviser Richard Bullick on 15 December 2016.

"Mr Cairns refers to a series of incidents in respect of which he appears to allege that Minister Bell tried to break his finger and swung a punch at him," the document read.

Mr McCormick said he was not aware of the allegations.

The senior civil servant also said that Mr Bell was "visibly tired" at a key Invest NI meeting in New York because he had had a "late night".

"The context for this was that I had accompanied him and Niall Gibbons of Tourism Ireland for a meal and some drinks the previous evening, and although I left them when I felt the need to sleep, I was told later that Jonathan Bell had had quite a late night," he said.

He added: "It was my impression that, in consequence the minister was unable to participate fully in the meeting in a constructive way, as I would have hoped". 

Mr McCormick said Mr Bell's trip to the US in January 2016 had "not gone well".

"In a number of subsequent conversations with Invest NI colleagues, they commented on Jonathan Bell’s limited contribution to the projection of Northern Ireland’s interests in relation to Foreign Direct Investment and trade (indeed they had been aware of his limited capacity to contribute effectively, and the risk of him making inappropriate or unhelpful comments even before the trip took place)," he said.

Mr McCormick said he had not experienced the "untoward pressure or bullying" other people had alleged about Mr Bell.

He said they got on well personally and had shared interests in Christianity and missionary work.

Mr Bell is due to appear before the inquiry on Thursday.

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