Northern Ireland news

Jonathan Bell's integrity as a witness is key to inquiry outcome

Sir Patrick Coghlin is chairing the RHI Inquiry. File picture by Colm Lenaghan, Pacemaker

Jonathan Bell is adamant that he never swung his fist at his former special adviser Timothy Cairns – or anybody for that matter – but the former DUP minister certainly didn't pull any punches during yesterday's oral evidence to the RHI inquiry. The testimony from what is arguably the key witness in Sir Patrick Coghlin's probe was always going to be explosive. It was claims by Mr Bell about being overruled by Arlene Foster that changed the dynamic of the RHI scandal.

Up to mid-December 2016, before the former enterprise minister broke ranks, Sinn Féin was working with the DUP to resolve the crisis amicably. However, following the Strangford MLA's gripping interview with Stephen Nolan, the gloves came off, signalling the beginning of the end for devolution and the start of a war of words that rages to this day.

Mr Bell inherited the RHI from Mrs Foster when he succeeded her at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment in May 2015. It's a moot point whether his predecessor was aware of the scale of what was coming down the tracks but within weeks of settling behind his future party leader's desk, a projected overspend on RHI, compounded by a sudden spike applications, meant the new minister had a crisis on his hands.

The disputed account of what happened between Mr Bell taking office and his closure of the scheme in February the following year is the key period under scrutiny. The former minister maintains that initially the RHI issue wasn't across his desk and that subsequently information about it was vague or unavailable.

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Yet his case is often undermined by uncertainty around dates and a lack of documentary evidence to corroborate his claims. Several times during yesterday's proceedings the inquiry panel appeared frustrated over apparent inconsistencies in the witness's account and his tendency to throw in gratuitous detail.

And while Mr Bell's more salacious claims about fellow DUP ministers and others will provide plenty of column inches, their relevance to the substantive issues under consideration isn't clear.

The integrity of the former minister as a witness is crucial to how convincing the inquiry finds his evidence, hence the rigorous and detailed approach. It's clear though that he did not help his case yesterday when he failed to explain satisfactorily why he never raised concerns about senior DUP backroom staff's "interests in the chicken industry" before there was widespread outcry about the RHI.

Certainly there were plenty metaphorical punches swung during yesterday's session but many failed to land on their intended target.


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