Northern Ireland news

RHI inquiry: Jonathan Bell 'ordered out of pub during Stormont trip to New York'

Former DUP enterprise minister Jonathan Bell
Brendan Hughes

A DUP minister was told to leave a pub during a Stormont trip to New York for being "clearly intoxicated", his former special adviser has claimed.

Jonathan Bell had consumed a bottle of wine and two pints of Guinness when he was asked to leave the bar after twice falling asleep, Timothy Cairns said.

An "unsteady" Mr Bell was helped back to his hotel "while he sang the Deep Blue Something hit single Breakfast at Tiffany's at full volume".

The claim about the departmental trip is contained in witness statements made by Mr Cairns to the RHI inquiry ahead of giving evidence in person for the first time today.

In his statements, Mr Cairns accused Mr Bell of repeated "bullying and aggressive behaviour" towards him, other DUP members and civil servants.

DUP MP Emma Little-Pengelly and DUP MLA Michelle McIlveen were among those who experienced "bullying and physical intimidation", he said.

Mr Bell strenuously denied Mr Cairns's allegations at the RHI inquiry last week, and claimed he was the victim of a "smear campaign".

Mr Cairns said Mr Bell's behaviour was raised within the party, but concerns were not properly addressed.

It was a "recurring pattern" that "Peter Robinson [then DUP leader and first minister] was backing Jonathan and ignoring serious allegations".

"Despite the historic allegations made against Mr Bell and his known volatility, Mr Robinson proceeded to promote him. In my opinion this decision by Peter Robinson is inexplicable," he added.

Mr Bell was minister at the Department of Enterprise Trade and Investment (Deti) from May 2015 to May 2016, which oversaw the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme.

Mr Cairns recalled a breakfast in London in June 2015, saying that Mr Bell "became enraged" when he suggested consulting the party on a departmental decision.

The former special adviser admitted he "did not handle the conflict well" and responded: "Well Jonathan if you want to be the man with big b*lls and just make the decision go right ahead.."

He added: "While I was making this comment I must have been wagging my finger, Jonathan reached to grab my finger, I pulled it back from his grip.

"In an aggressive tone Jonathan said, 'If you wag your finger at me again I will break it."'

Mr Cairns said Mr Bell pointed his finger and said "you're fired" after he refused to apologise.

He said Timothy Johnston, a special adviser (Spad) in the first minister's office, later "telephoned Mr Bell and told him that only the party officers could dismiss me".

A meeting was later arranged involving Mr Cairns, Mr Bell and Mr Johnston, and it was resolved that Mr Cairns would continue as Spad.

However, Mr Cairns said he "found the meeting exceptionally upsetting" as Mr Bell had not apologised.

"I was not satisfied with the outcome of the meeting and was upset at its conclusion. This was not the first time that I, or others, had made allegations against Jonathan.

"It felt that, once again, Peter Robinson was backing Jonathan and ignoring serious allegations. This was a recurring pattern."

In a section of his witness statement entitled "pinned a woman against a wall", Mr Cairns said: "This was in reference to the widely known story that [Mr Bell] cornered Ms McIlveen at the party conference and had berated her for some time until she broke down in tears. It is also a reference to his behaviour toward Ms Little-Pengelly."

 Emma Little-Pengelly and Michelle McIlveen

Mr Cairns said he also raised concerns about Mr Bell's behaviour with Andrew McCormick, then permanent secretary of the department.

He said Mr McCormick "informed me that he was putting procedures in place for the civil servants, but he informed me there was nothing he could do for me, as no procedure existed to take action against the minister".

Mr Cairns said Mr Bell had an "explosive personality", and alleged he threatened him with violence twice.

He said at times their "relationship was good" but at other times Mr Bell "would be emotional, quoting the bible and wondering about the eternal destiny of his soul".

Mr Cairns claimed on one occasion, he had been in a room with Mr Bell when he "went into a rage".

"He stood up and walked towards me in an aggressive manner. I felt physically under threat. He was in a rage with fists clenched. I stepped back to the door. He kept walking ... He stood, using his bulk, and proceeded to shout aggressively at me for some time. I felt physically threatened. I believed he was going to physically assault me and I left the room," Mr Cairns said.

Mr Cairns also criticised Mr Bell's competence as Deti minister.

"The minister rarely read his ministerial papers or briefing notes, to the point that he often boasted to me that he only ever read the summary sheet," he said.

"At no stage were any documents or changes to documents concealed from the minister.

"The minister would have had every opportunity to read all papers passing through his office and suggest any amendments to those."

Mr Cairns had been a Spad in the first minister's office before being appointed as Mr Bell's Spad in May 2015. DUP Spad Andrew Crawford moved with Arlene Foster at that time to finance.

The ex-special adviser said he "did not wish to be Jonathan Bell's Spad" and "no one in the Spad core wished to take the job either".

He described Mr Robinson's descision as "inexplicable", citing reasons such as Mr Crawford's years of experience in Deti.

He also said moving then Spad Stephen Brimstone – who had previously been at the centre of controversy over claims of political interference in the Housing Executive – from the Department for Social Development (DSD) to the first minister's office was "strange".

"The press took his appointment to my post to be a promotion, given Mr Brimstone was the experienced DSD Spad it seemed odd to invite negative publicity from a move that defied logic," Mr Cairns said.

Mr Cairns said Mr Bell's "hostile attitude" became "progressively worse" when Mrs Foster became first minister and DUP leader.

He said Mr Bell began absenting himself from DUP ministerial meetings and "sitting with Alliance ministers prior to the executive meetings".

Mr Bell was "conscious that Mrs Foster had been a popular minister" and "was often frustrated that people would complain to Mrs Foster about him", Mr Cairns said.

He claimed that Alastair Hamilton, chief executive of Invest NI, "would often complain to Mrs Foster about Jonathan's conduct" and "other business and community leaders" also raised concerns.

Last week, Mr Bell appeared at the inquiry and claimed he had been kept in the dark over the costs of the RHI scheme spiralling.

Mr Bell also claimed that he was the victim of a "smear campaign" and that Mr Cairns and the DUP would attempt to "fit him up".

Mr Bell also denied he had ever threatened Mr Cairns.

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