Northern Ireland news

Timothy Johnston dismisses claims that he blocked RHI cost controls

DUP CHIEF executive Timothy Johnston has described his former colleague's claim that he voiced opposition to RHI cost controls as "wrong".

The former senior special adviser said his counterpart Timothy Cairns' evidence to the RHI inquiry does not tally with his own recollections of the summer of 2015, when Mr Johnston said he had an "absolute lack of interest" in the botched scheme.

Mr Cairns' written and verbal evidence asserts that as the cost of the RHI was running out of control, Mr Johnston insisted that its generous tariffs must not be reduced. However, Mr Cairns, who at the time was an aide to enterprise minister Jonathan Bell, has cautioned that he will not "go to the sword" on his belief.

Mr Johnston said he believed Mr Cairns may have "conflated the issues" and that he is "absolutely certain" he was not consulted on cost controls at the time.

The former special adviser to Peter Robinson and latterly Arlene Foster said he suggested as a "practical, sensible thing to do" that Mr Cairns liaise with his predecessor at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, Andrew Crawford, for "guidance" on changes to the scheme in the summer of 2015. However, the DUP chief executive denied knowledge of a telephone conversation in August of that year where Mr Cairns told him he had been working with Mr Crawford and they were seeking to go for the latest possible date to reduce the tariffs.

"I don't recall that phone call nor do I do recall being told they were going for the latest date," he said

Earlier, the inquiry heard there was an "element of centralisation" in the appointment process for special advisers.

He conceded that the process for selecting spads was not transparent and did not "comply with the letter and the spirit" of the corresponding legislation.

Inquiry chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin described the relationship between the recruitment process and the guidelines as "two utterly divorced structures".

Not for the first time this week, the inquiry heard claims that former DUP minister Mr Bell was not capable of fulfilling "any senior role".

"I was not in favour of him being junior minister," Mr Johnston said in reference to Mr Bell's previous role in the Stormont executive.

"It wasn't that he wasn't capable but the effort wasn't always put in – there was a glamour to being junior minister," he said.

Earlier this week, former first minister Arlene Foster said she regretted not sacking Mr Bell when she succeeded Peter Robinson as DUP leader.

Mr Johnston said he had advised Mr Robinson not to promote Mr Bell to the role of enterprise minister in 2015.

He said Mr Bell was "very loyal" to the former party leader.

Mr Johnston said he believed "we would not be where we are today" if Mr Bell had not been given the enterprise minister's job.

The DUP chief executive, who was appointed to the new role a year ago, said he feels "uncomfortable" with the perception that he is an all-powerful figure within the DUP.

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