Simon Hamilton releases official papers to challenge Jonathan Bell claims

Jonathan Bell pictured near his Bangor home. Picture by Colm Lenaghan, Pacemaker
Jonathan Bell pictured near his Bangor home. Picture by Colm Lenaghan, Pacemaker Jonathan Bell pictured near his Bangor home. Picture by Colm Lenaghan, Pacemaker

ECONOMY minister Simon Hamilton has published official documents challenging claims that special advisers attempted to "cleanse" Stormont records.

The DUP minister claimed that his predecessor Jonathan Bell's version of events seriously varied from the facts.

Mr Bell said a whistle-blower civil servant told him that references to First Minister Arlene Foster were removed from a document as the ending of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme was being considered last winter.

A note from the senior civil servant, Chris Stewart, in response to the claims, said: "The submission as finalised was wholly factual: the omission of the reference to the engagement with OFMDFM (Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister) in no way altered the actions to be taken."

The draft submission was seeking Executive approval across Stormont departments for the closure of the RHI scheme through an urgent procedure.

An earlier draft referenced discussions with the Department of Finance and Personnel and the OFMDFM as part of Mr Bell's decision to close the scheme to new applications without public consultation.

Mr Bell's special adviser Timothy Cairns requested the two departments be removed from the paper. Mr Stewart said he challenged the request but agreed after the special adviser continued to press for it, assuming the intervention had been made at the then minister's request.

Some time later Mr Bell told the civil servant he had not had prior knowledge of this change and expressed concern that it had been done without his knowledge.

Mr Stewart added: "The minister later returned and advised that he had dealt with the matter to his satisfaction elsewhere, and that it was closed.

"To the best of my knowledge, no other document or email was amended by the special adviser without the then minister's knowledge and agreement.

"Also, to be clear, the submission that was amended was a draft in preparation, and not something which had been finalised and approved by myself as the signatory. There is no evidence whatsoever of any document being amended after signature."

Mr Hamilton claimed the documentation showed the involvement of the First Minister's department helped secure the closure of RHI in February 2016 - earlier than the date originally signed off on by Mr Bell.

He added: "To suggest this was a cover-up is to ignore the facts. The involvement of the First Minister and deputy First Minster to bring forward RHI closure was in the public interest and the original draft made this involvement explicit."

The DUP has suspended Mr Bell following explosive allegations about the RHI scheme made without party permission in a television interview last week.

Mr Bell alleged that DUP special advisers delayed its closure and sought to 'cleanse' official documents, while Arlene Foster was "abusive" towards him and angrily "overruled" him as he sought to shut down the lucrative scheme.

The allegations, made in an interview with the BBC, have been denied by Mrs Foster and the party's advisers.