Northern Ireland news

RHI inquiry: Arlene Foster defends special advisers

DUP leader Arlene Foster, and former party special advisers John Robinson, Stephen Brimstone and Timothy Johnston
Rebecca Black and Michael McHugh, Press Association

Arlene Foster has defended her party's special advisers at a public inquiry into the botched green energy scheme Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI).

The RHI Inquiry has heard claims from former DUP minister Jonathan Bell that he had a difficult relationship with some of the party's special advisers (spads).

Mr Bell also claimed the DUP "camouflaged" how it appointed its special advisers.

Mrs Foster gave a robust defence of the spads today during her evidence to the inquiry.

Follow her evidence live

She said the DUP is no different to other political parties in how they appointed their spads.

"I don't think we were any different at all, if you look at the Ulster Unionists, the SDLP, certainly Sinn Féin put people into posts from their backroom team, we were no different," she told the inquiry.

"I will say this, all of the special advisers that the DUP appointed were people who had third-level education, and who had an ability to work within the system.

"I am not sure that that can be said about every other special adviser."

Read more: Who's who at the RHI inquiry?

Earlier Mrs Foster maintained she had not been aware of the scale of the difficulties around the RHI scheme in the autumn of 2015.

She told the inquiry that had she known, she would have raised it in the Fresh Start political talks during September - October 2015 when they were having discussions with the Treasury.

"If we had known there was such an issue, thinking about this over the last few days, with funding, then that's something that would have been dealt with in the Fresh Start Talks," she told the inquiry.

Mrs Foster said it would have been much harder in January 2016 to go back to the Treasury to ask for more money for Northern Ireland.

"After the talks were finished, and Treasury were not too happy that here again Northern Ireland had asked for more money after a political negotiation," she said.

"In January then it was difficult to ask for any space in relation to RHI.

"But if we had known before the Fresh Start Talks had taken place or during the Fresh Start Talks, we certainly would have tried to gain some money from the Treasury at that time, or some leeway."

Questions over the Democratic Unionists' handling of the overspending Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) led to the collapse of political power sharing at Stormont early last year.

The DUP's former coalition partners Sinn Féin have refused to retake their seats around the ministerial table and endless rounds of negotiations have not persuaded them.

Mrs Foster was enterprise minister when the flawed RHI scheme was being designed.

Controls to limit the scheme's costs were not introduced and overly generous subsidies saw the taxpayer bill spike dramatically.

Mrs Foster has contested claims by a successor minister, former party colleague Jonathan Bell, that she asked him to keep the scheme open.

After Mr Bell's allegations were made public Mrs Foster was asked by Sinn Féin to step aside from her role as Stormont's first minister.

When she refused the late Sinn Féin deputy first minister Martin McGuinness resigned and triggered the collapse of the devolved institutions.

Mrs Foster has denied claims there was a party narrative from the DUP to discredit Mr Bell over the RHI scheme.

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