Northern Ireland news

DUP pair's fractious relationship led to 'confusion' around RHI

Timothy Cairns alleges Jonathan Bell threw a punch at him and attempted to break his finger

THE "INCREASINGLY dysfunctional" relationship between former DUP minister Jonathan Bell and his special adviser – including alleged physical violence – led to "confusion and difficulty" around the botched Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI).

However, according to the senior civil servant who worked alongside Mr Bell and his spad Timothy Cairns at the time the RHI's largesse was being reeled in, the pair's fractious relationship did not impact on the delay in the scheme's tariff reduction.

In former Department for the Economy (DfE) permanent secretary Andrew McCormick's written evidence to the RHI inquiry, he notes there was a "breakdown of trust and communication" between the two senior DUP figures.

But Mr McCormick says he was unaware of an incident in which Mr Bell is alleged to have tried to break Mr Cairns's finger and swung a punch at his spad, which is documented elsewhere in evidence.

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The former permanent secretary recalls a series of "awkward incidents" involving Mr Bell during a trip to the US in January 2016 as part of an Invest NI trade mission.

Mr McCormick says conversations with Invest NI colleagues included comments on the then DUP minister's "limited capacity to contribute effectively, and the risk of him making inappropriate or unhelpful comments".

He said it was noted that during the trip Mr Bell was "visibly tired" at a key meeting.

"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," the statement says.

Mr McCormick goes onto to say that the minister was "unable to participate fully in the meeting in a constructive way, as I would have hoped".

The senior civil servant's evidence also documents a dispute between Mr Bell and then First Minister Arlene Foster over who should attend a visit by the then Mayor of London Boris Johnson to Ballymena company Wrightbus.

The DfE minister asked his permanent secretary to investigate why he had not been invited, after which he recommended no action be taken.

"It was clear to me that Jonathan Bell’s reaction to what happened had been seen as inappropriate by the then First Minister Arlene Foster and her team," Mr McCormick says.

Elsewhere, the former DfE permanent secretary says he and Me Bell got on well personally and shared an interest in Christianity and missionary work.

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