Northern Ireland news

RHI: 'No general approach to protect me' – Arlene Foster

DUP leader Arlene Foster with party chief executive Timothy Johnston, left. Picture by Mal McCann
Brendan Hughes

ARLENE Foster has denied there were was a "party narrative" by the DUP to discredit former minister Jonathan Bell in the fall-out over the RHI scheme.

The DUP leader said there was "no general approach to protect me as party leader" in the controversy.

She said there were no attempts to deflect attention from senior special adviser (Spad) Timothy Johnston – or blame cost control delays on another former DUP Spad, Andrew Crawford.

Mrs Foster also said she has no recollection of any contact around December 2016 with another ex-DUP Spad, Timothy Cairns, who claims he told her of Mr Johnston's involvement in delaying RHI controls.

DUP leader Arlene Foster, and former party special advisers John Robinson, Stephen Brimstone and Timothy Johnston

The former first minister is due to give evidence today before the RHI inquiry into the green energy scheme scandal which brought down Stormont power-sharing.

She first attended the inquiry in April, but is likely to face more scrutiny this time in light other witnesses' evidence in the months since then.

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The inquiry earlier this month heard of a text message in December 2016 as the scandal gathered pace in which Mr Cairns, Mr Bell's former Spad, said he was willing to fit his story with the "party narrative".

It followed BBC interview in which Mr Bell alleged Mr Johnston and Mr Crawford intervened to delay the introduction of cost controls in autumn 2015 – and accused Mrs Foster overruling his bid to close the botched scheme in early 2016.

Mr Bell, who succeeded Mrs Foster as enterprise minister, cited the text as he told the inquiry he had been the victim of a "smear campaign".

Ex-DUP minister Jonathan Bell

In written statements released yesterday, Mrs Foster repeatedly denied there was a "party narrative".

"While there was no party narrative, I do believe that there was a prevailing view that Timothy Johnston was not involved in delaying the introduction of cost controls," she said.

Mr Johnston was a former Spad to three DUP first ministers including Mrs Foster, and is now the party's chief executive.

Mrs Foster told the BBC in December 2016 that Mr Johnston had no role in delaying cost controls, but Mr Cairns told the inquiry he informed Mrs Foster of Mr Johnston's involvement the day before the interview.

He said he did not believe Mrs Foster "in either her Nolan interview or in her (assembly) statement, fully expressed the view I had stated to her in the speaker phone call that Mr Johnston had given, at least initial, direction in this matter".

When asked about discussions around the time of the interview, Mrs Foster said: "I don't have any recollection of a conversation or any other communication with Timothy Cairns in or around this time."

Mr Crawford was Mrs Foster's Spad when she launched the RHI scheme in 2012 as enterprise minister.

He resigned after a senior civil servant, Andrew McCormick, alleged he exerted influence over the delays in curbing the scheme's overgenerous tariffs.

Arlene Foster's former aide Andrew Crawford

Mr Crawford had a number of close relatives with boilers registered in the RHI scheme, but denies any wrongdoing.

Mr McCormick told the inquiry "the DUP was very concerned to deflect or discredit any possible reference to Timothy Johnston, and, ultimately, acquiesced with the necessity (as it appeared at the time) of naming Andrew Crawford as the instigator of the delay".

Mr Crawford also told the inquiry he may have been "viewed as expendable whereas Timothy Johnston was not".

But Mrs Foster responded: "I do take issue with Dr McCormick's evidence as I do not know who he means by 'the DUP'. I, and other senior party members, certainly did not acquiesce to the necessity of naming Andrew Crawford as the instigator of the delay."

She added: "I recall no such discussions about deflecting or discrediting reference to Timothy Johnston."

Mrs Foster was also asked about an amendment to a submission paper in 2016 about RHI, which Mr Bell branded a "cleansing".

The DUP leader said: "I had no role, directly or indirectly, in the amendment and had no awareness that the amendment was being made."

She said there was "no general approach to protect me as party leader", and she understood the reference removed was about the first and deputy first ministers' office, "and not me in a personal capacity".

Mrs Foster also addressed a meeting she had with Mr Bell about closing the RHI scheme after cost controls had been imposed.

Mr Bell said he wanted to shut down the scheme as soon as possible in February 2016, when others wanted to allow time for businesses still applying to complete the process.

Mrs Foster wrote: "I recall Timothy Johnston and I trying to explain to him that in light of the public outcry, keeping the scheme open for a further period of time was taking account of the public's concerns.

"Jonathan Bell was completely opposed to the idea of any additional time from the outset.

"I do not recall him telling me at that time that he would make an announcement to extend by a further period, but he subsequently did announce an additional two weeks so that the scheme would eventually close on 29 February 2016."

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