Northern Ireland news

DUP spad John Robinson admitted relative was RHI claimant but later denied link

John Robinson told Simon Hamilton that his father-in-law was an RHI claimant in summer of 2016

FORMER DUP spad John Robinson admitted his father-in-law was an RHI claimant to minister Simon Hamilton six months ahead of publicly denying a conflict of interest.

At the height of public outcry over the botched scheme, Mr Robinson initially rejected claims of family connections to RHI

In oral evidence to the RHI inquiry yesterday, the DUP's current director of communications conceded that the public would perceive his father-in-law's involvement in the scheme as a conflict of interest but that he had not made a declaration.

Mr Robinson said he told Mr Hamilton that his father-in-law Hugh Rutledge was an RHI claimant in the summer of 2016, shortly after being appointed the then economy minister's spad.

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However, in the wake of explosive claims by Jonathan Bell in the assembly in December 2016, Mr Robinson denied any family links to the RHI.

It was only 24 hours later when presented with evidence by the Press Association of Mr Rutledge's involvement in the RHI that Mr Robinson publicly admitted the connection.

He subsequently stepped aside from further involvement with the RHI though retained his job as a spad until the collapse of the executive weeks later.

Mr Robinson told the inquiry yesterday that Mr Bell's claim that he and fellow DUP spad Timothy Johnston tried to delay cost controls for the RHI were "lies" and resulted in his family being "undeservedly catapulted" into the media spotlight.

Counsel for the inquiry Donal Lunny suggested to the former spad that the only difference between July 2016, when he told Mr Hamilton about his father-in-law, and his decision to step aside six months later was that the public had become aware of the potential conflict of interest.

He said he stepped aside "to try and help remove one additional problem".

Read more: Video - Who or what are special advisers?

The inquiry heard that at the time there were no pre-prepared forms for spads to make a declaration of interest.

Inquiry panellist Dame Una O'Brien said it was "routine practice in government" to provide officials with opportunities to declare interests before they begin their work.

In his written evidence, Mr Robinson said he regretted not declaring earlier that his father-in-law was a recipient of the RHI scheme, but he insisted he had "no financial interest" in his relative's business, insisting: "At no time was my judgment conflicted."

He said he "had no role" in his father-in-law's RHI application.

Mr Robinson went on to describe Mr Bell's claims in the assembly as "outrageous, untrue and unfounded".

"Jonathan told lies, he knows he told lies and I'll just leave it at that," he said.

Asked why Mr Bell would name him, Mr Robinson replied: "Only he can answer that question."

Follow the RHI inquiry live as Stephen Brimstone gives evidence today (Thursday September 27)

The inquiry heard earlier that Mr Robinson became the DUP's director of communications when he was 22.

He said he could not remember whether the job was advertised.

Asked if others were interviewed for the job, Mr Robinson said he was not sure.

He was appointed as Mr Hamilton's spad in May 2016 after the Stormont elections.

He told the inquiry Mr Hamilton had told him that other candidates had been considered for the role before he was appointed.

When asked what lessons could be learned from the RHI scheme, Mr Robinson said the department should have had more experts in the energy sector.

"The expertise was not in the department, the experts who were needed to manage the scheme but also to develop the regulations" he told the inquiry," her said.

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