Northern Ireland news

Jonathan Bell claims DUP mounted a smear campaign against him

Jonathan Bell peppered his oral evidence with salacious claims

JONATHAN Bell has claimed his former DUP colleagues attempted to "smear" him in the wake of an explosive television interview where he alleged the party's special advisers pressured him to keep the RHI open.

In yesterday's compelling oral evidence session to the inquiry into the botched green energy scheme, the former Stormont minister made a series of extraordinary claims about his treatment after he broke ranks in December 2016.

He claimed his erstwhile party colleagues "fitted" him up, while he accused the Executive Office of briefing against him and a journalist of advising the DUP how to discredit him.

The former Strangford MLA, whose widely-anticipated evidence will continue today, said he was "just one boy" in the face of multiple attempts to "smear" him.

"I fear I have been the victim of a massive smear campaign," he told the inquiry.

He claimed a three-way text message exchange involving his former special adviser Timothy Cairns, DUP leader Arlene Foster and senior special adviser Timothy Johnston, reveal that Mr Cairns would "fit his story to whatever the party narrative was to be".

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Mr Bell was suspended by the DUP in the wake of his interview with BBC journalist Stephen Nolan, where he aired explosive accusations about the role of the party's special advisers in thwarting closure of the scheme.

He said the efforts to discredit began in the aftermath of the interview.

The former minister claimed Stormont press secretary David Gordon described him as a "monster who had to be put to sleep" and that Sky Ireland correspondent David Blevins advised the DUP to attack Mr Bell on the basis of his Christian faith.

He also claimed that the DUP offered the Sunday Life newspaper an exclusive story about him being a bully, if they used the headline "Bully boy Bell". Mr Bell said the story never ran because nobody would substantiate the claims.

In a day in which much of the inquiry's substantive thrust was overshadowed by sensational claims, the former MLA pointed to lurid rumours circulated about his one-time DUP executive colleagues.

As the inquiry considered evidence from Mr Bell's former special adviser, he said: "It was Timothy Cairns who explained, inappropriately... in garish and lurid detail the sexual misbehaviour of two DUP ministers."

He said the detail of the exchange was "explicit".

Elsewhere, Mr Bell claimed one of the reasons the closure of the RHI scheme was delayed was because the brother of Timothy Johnston – now DUP chief executive – was an boiler installer.

The DUP has declined to comment directly on evidence given during the inquiry but pointed to a response it gave in January last year when Mr Bell made a similar claim in the Stormont chamber.

"For the avoidance of doubt, Timothy Johnston’s brother does not, nor never has installed boilers, does not work in this sector and has not been involved in any RHI issues whatsoever," a party spokesman said on that occasion.

The inquiry also heard chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin characterise the DUP's appointment of special advisers as being "camouflaged" – a point with which Mr Bell agreed.

The former minister, who succeeded Arlene Foster at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment in May 2015, said he was instructed to appoint Mr Cairns as his spad, contrary to the code which specifies that such appointments should be made by ministers.

He said he signed a "pre-written" letter saying a number of candidates had been considered and Mr Cairns was found to be the most suitable.

The letter described Mr Cairns as "highly capable" and while Mr Bell said he was "content" with the appointment, he would have preferred to have chosen his own candidate.

The inquiry chairman appeared aghast by the revelation.

"You were signing a letter that was consistent with the code, but that was not what this party had decided?" he asked

The chairman said there is a "very real concern" that the appointment process for advisers was being "camouflaged".

"That's exactly right," Mr Bell responded.

Mr Bell insisted to the RHI inquiry that he was not made aware of budget concerns around the scheme until "some time around the summer" of 2015

He said that with hindsight, the situation where a minster was not given information was "quite outrageous".

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