Northern Ireland news

RHI: Timothy Johnston 'involved in cost control delays'

The DUP'S Timothy Johnston. Picture by Mal McCann
Brendan Hughes

THE DUP's most senior adviser was involved in the decision to delay implementing cost controls for the RHI scheme, former party aide Timothy Cairns has said.

He said that Timothy Johnston – who was a special adviser (Spad) to then First Minister Peter Robinson and is now the DUP's chief executive – was involved in the decision in late August 2015.

Mr Cairns, who was special adviser to then DUP enterprise minister Jonathan Bell, described Mr Johnston as a "powerful individual" who ran all party-related matters.

He added: "I believe that Mr Johnston in running party matters while a Spad was operating outside of what he was permitted to do."

He also said Andrew Crawford, who was Spad to Arlene Foster, was also involved in the decision.

Mr Cairns said it was Mr Johnston and Mr Crawford's "view was that the latest date possible should be sought".

However, he said it was mistakenly believed at the time that the RHI bill would be met by the UK government treasury rather than through the Northern Ireland block grant.

He added the decision to delay capping RHI subsidies was influenced by the impact of a Westminster decision to abruptly cut tariffs on a wind energy scheme, saying it was to the "detriment of many in Northern Ireland".

Mr Cairns also said he spoke to Mr Crawford several times about RHI cost controls, and that Mrs Foster had been present during a meeting in June 2015.

The RHI scheme was launched in 2012 but it was only by summer 2015 that officials in Stormont's enterprise department became aware of the flaws causing spiralling costs.

In statements to the RHI inquiry, Mr Cairns said the DUP had been lobbied by MLAs, the Ulster Farmers' Union and others about the scheme.

At the August meeting, Mr Cairns said no pressure was put on civil servants who said they could "live with a date of early November 2015".

"While Andrew Crawford and Timothy Johnston indicated that they would be content with a date in early October for cost controls, their view was that the latest possible date should be sought," Mr Cairns said.

He added: "I was surprised at the willingness to move the date from October to November."

The early November date later slipped by several weeks due to procedural delay.

Read more:

Claims have been made to the RHI inquiry that DUP special advisers were taking "many decisions" as opposed to ministers.

Mr Cairns said Mr Johnston "often acted as first minister/party leader proxy on many matters concerning the DUP's policy on issues and consequently executive policy".

Last week it emerged that Mr Bell claimed Mr Cairns had told him David Sterling, now head of the civil service, had shouted at Mr Crawford: "You kept this scheme open for the benefit of your family and you've caused a significant budgetary crisis in Northern Ireland."

However, Mr Cairns said Mr Bell had not recalled it correctly and that the conversation was actually between Mr Crawford and another Stormont official, Mike Brennan.

Mr Cairns said Mr Crawford had told him that Mr Brennan had made a "veiled accusation" that Mr Crawford was seeking to keep RHI open "to benefit family and friends".

He added that Mr Crawford was "outraged" by the suggestion. Mr Crawford has denied the claim.

He also said Mr Crawford informed him "on several occations of concerns being previously raised with him and the former minister about the scheme and specifically concerns raised by a whistleblower".

Mr Cairns said he raised these concerns with departmental officials, but added: "I became increasingly frustrated as, in my opinion, these concerns were not acted upon with any urgency."

Read more: 

Jonathan Bell says alleged incident where he reportedly "swung a punch" at his special adviser "never happened"

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