Northern Ireland news

DUP's Simon Hamilton conspired with special adviser to leak civil servants' emails

 Simon Hamilton testifies to the RHI inquiry on Tuesday

FORMER Stormont minister Simon Hamilton conspired with his special adviser to leak civil servants’ emails in a bid to deflect media attention away from the DUP.

The RHI inquiry heard on Tuesday how the Strangford MLA and John Robinson, now the DUP’s chief spin doctor, decided to make the departmental correspondence public to shift scrutiny from Arlene Foster’s adviser, who had been linked to stalling efforts to curb the scheme’s generosity.

In January last year, with Mr Hamilton’s consent, Mr Robinson sent an envelope containing copies of the emails to journalists and the permanent secretary at his own department, Andrew McCormick.

The former economy minister told the inquiry the emails from Stormont officials to poultry industry and boiler installers were “pretty explosive”.

The emails had been forwarded to Mrs Foster’s former special adviser and ex-Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) employee Andrew Crawford days earlier by the lobby group’s chief executive Wesley Aston.

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The DUP spad had been the focus of intense media attention after The Irish News revealed his relatives’ interest in the poultry industry and subsequent claims that the party’s aides had sought to delay the imposition of RHI cost controls.

The emails, which came ahead of a huge spike in RHI applications, revealed plans to cut the scheme’s lucrative subsidies. Mr Hamilton told the inquiry panel that he and Mr Robinson were behind the leaking of the emails.

“I don’t think it was my idea,” the former DUP minister told the inquiry, before adding: “I accept this looks highly unorthodox – it is highly unorthodox.”

Mr Hamilton agreed with inquiry chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin that the decision was not his “proudest moment”.

“It is one of many things that I regret around this period,” Mr Hamilton said.

The inquiry also heard how former finance minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir liaised with senior republicans over how to deal with the crisis.

In January last year the South Belfast MLA emailed Gerry Adams’s confidante Ted Howell about DUP proposals for reining in RHI.

Mr Howell, a member of Sinn Féin’s ard chomhairle, had come out of retirement at the request of the late Martin McGuinness to chair a “crisis committee” dealing with the fallout from the scheme.

“This was the greatest political crisis of the last decade,” Mr Ó Muilleoir said.

The previous month Mr Ó Muilleoir sent RHI documents to Padraig Wilson, the former ‘officer commanding’ of IRA prisoners in the Maze Prison.

The South Belfast MLA said the peace process was “imploding” at the time.

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