Northern Ireland news

Arlene Foster to face critical RHI probe over contradictory evidence

Arlene Foster told the BBC that her spad Timothy Johnston had played no part in delaying the imposition of RHI cost controls

ARLENE Foster's forthcoming evidence the RHI inquiry looks set to be decisive in determining whether she will continue to lead the DUP.

The former first minister could appear at the Sir Patrick Coghlin's probe as early as next week to answer claims that she knew efforts to curb the lavish scheme were being deliberately thwarted by her most senior special adviser.

It has been claimed that 24 hours before Mrs Foster denied on television that her spad Timothy Johnston had any part in delaying the imposition of RHI cost controls, she had been told the man who would later be appointed as DUP chief executive had in fact frustrated plans to cut the scheme's generous subsidies.

The evidence from Tim Cairns, a former adviser to Jonathan Bell, directly contradicts the DUP leader's assertion in a December 2016 interview with Stephen Nolan.

According to Mr Cairns, he outlined Mr Johnston's role in delaying cost controls to the former first minister during a conference call the day before the interview, during which her senior adviser was present, alongside Richard Bullick, another DUP spad.

In his written statement to the inquiry, Mr Cairns says Mr Johnston told him to liaise with Mrs Foster's then spad Andrew Crawford to develop a party position on the introduction of cost controls.

"Mr Johnston clearly became uncomfortable and the conversation was quickly brought to an end," Mr Cairns said.

 

He also claimed that both Mr Johnston and Mr Crawford sought the "latest possible date" for implementing cost controls.

Senior civil servant Andrew McCormick has previously told the inquiry how he was "very surprised" when Mr Foster claimed she did not know why a reduction in the RHI tariff had been delayed given that her advisers were aware of the reason.

The former Department for the Economy (DfE) permanent secretary said that in the days ahead of Mrs Foster's interview with the BBC, it emerged that Mr Crawford was the "instigator of the delay".

Alongside a claim that Mrs Foster was present during discussions around RHI in June 2015, Mr Cairns's evidence again places the DUP leader at the centre of the controversy over who knew what and when about the botched scheme.

The revelations from Mr Bell's former spad, who remains a member of the DUP, sets the scene for a compelling oral evidence session from Mrs Foster.

The possibility that the former first minister may have deliberately withheld information, albeit in a TV interview, will raise serious questions about her leadership.

The inquiry has yet to announce when the DUP leader will make her much-anticipated return appearance in front of Sir Patrick Coghlin and his panel but is expected to announce its forthcoming witness schedule in the next couple of days.

 

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