RHI scandal: ‘Ministerial perks may have stopped Bell quitting’

Jonathan Bell and Sammy Wilson in 2011
Jonathan Bell and Sammy Wilson in 2011

A veteran DUP man has launched a fierce attack upon party colleague Jonathan Bell, suggesting that he may have kept quiet about his concerns over the botched heat scheme because he feared losing his ministerial perks.

Rubbishing Mr Bell’s claim that other people had tried to block his efforts to rein in the out-of-control Renewable Heat Incentives (RHI) scheme, Sammy Wilson said that if he had been the minister in charge instead of Mr Bell he would either have used his powers to push ahead anyway – or else would have resigned.

He questioned why it had taken Mr Bell (who was minister for one year until this May )so many months to have his “fit of conscience” and speak about the scheme publicly.

Mr Bell had said in an interview late on Thursday night that a civil servant had raised misgivings about the RHI scheme in June last year.

He said that in September that year, at “the most immediately practical point”, he attempted to intervene but was told DUP special advisors “were not allowing this scheme to be closed”.

He said he had wanted to close it by October, but that the “outside interference of the special advisers ensured that the scheme was kept open for another four weeks,” whilst many more applicants put in bids for cash.

Mr Wilson – who last December was believed to have been considering challenging Arlene Foster for the leadership of the DUP before announcing he would not run – rounded upon Mr Bell on both the Nolan Show and Good Morning Ulster.

In his comments to the latter show, Mr Wilson said that “a minister is there to make the decisions” and has the power to “show the adviser the door any time you want”.

He told the show that Mr Bell is “totally responsible for the fact the scheme was not closed down before lots more people came in and were able to take advantage of the generous terms – that’s inescapable and he cannot run away and hide behind special advisers”.

“If I’d been a minister and some special adviser came in and said to me ‘I’m bringing you a message from another minister, you can’t do this,’ I’d have done one of two things” – namely, forge ahead and risk the sack, or quit.

He said it was possible Mr Bell “didn’t want to give up his car and his salary and his position”, and said his recent statements merely represent a “back-covering exercise”.

Mr Wilson also said: “I don’t believe there is any need for a public inquiry on this.”

Mr Bell said he has instructed the firm Johnsons Law to answer any allegations raised.