Northern Ireland news

DUP silent on chief spin doctor John Robinson's future after revelations over leaked emails

John Robinson and Simon Hamilton leaked civil servants' emails to deflect attention from the DUP

THE DUP was last night refusing to be drawn on the future of its chief spin doctor after it emerged that he leaked civil servants' emails to the press in an effort to take the heat off a party colleague.

The RHI inquiry heard on Tuesday how former economy minister Simon Hamilton and his then special adviser John Robinson anonymously sent copies of emails to the media and their own department's permanent secretary to deflect attention from Arlene Foster's aide.

With the inquiry's oral hearings set to conclude tomorrow, it appears highly unlikely that Mr Robinson, a brother-in-law of DUP chief executive Timothy Johnston, will be recalled to give evidence for a second time.

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The emails from Stormont officials to Ulster Farmers Union (UFU) poultry industry representatives and boiler installers were "pretty explosive", according to Mr Hamilton, who believed their leaking would take media attention away from Andrew Crawford, the DUP spad accused of thwarting efforts to curb the RHI's largesse.

The former economy minister and Mr Robinson, who is now the DUP's head of communications, conspired to release the correspondence in January last year as their party faced intense media scrutiny.

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The emails had been forwarded to Mr Crawford, a former employee of the UFU, days earlier by the lobby group's chief executive Wesley Aston.

They were subsequently unearthed as part of the RHI inquiry's extensive retrieval process, which has yielded hundreds of texts and emails from politicians, officials and high-ranking party workers.

Dating from July 2015, ahead of a huge spike in RHI applications, the correspondence showed there had contact between civil servants and the UFU relating to plans to cut the scheme's lucrative subsidies.

"I accept this looks highly unorthodox – it is highly unorthodox," Mr Hamilton told the inquiry.

He said the decision to leak the correspondence was made in the context of an "incredibly febrile atmosphere" and that his party was "being hit from all sides" with allegations, including claims of corruption.

He said the emails countered the public narrative that DUP advisers, in particular Andrew Crawford, were principally to blame for a spike in applications.

When asked if Mr Robinson would face any disciplinary process or sanctions for engaging in malpractice, the DUP last night said it had a policy of not commenting on ongoing issues relating to RHI while the inquiry is ongoing.

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