A former DUP minister has claimed he was prevented from clamping down on a botched renewable energy scheme because two of his party’s special advisers “have such extensive interests in the poultry industry”.
The explosive allegations were made in the Assembly by DUP rebel Jonathan Bell, who was suspended from the party in December for speaking to the press about the scandal without party permission.
Mr Bell, who succeeded Arlene Foster as minister at the Stormont department that set up the RHI scheme, made his claims under Assembly privilege.
Despite two warnings from the Speaker, Robin Newton, to come back to the topic of debate, Mr Bell told the chamber: “I am saying that these matters can be investigated in this week alongside the very first piece of information given to me in a ministerial office by the DUP party officer who was appointed as a special adviser,
“Timothy Cairns, which was that I would not be allowed to reduce the tariff on the scheme because Timothy Johnston, the special adviser to the then First Minister, and John Robinson, at that time the DUP director of communications and now the special adviser to the Economy Minister, had such extensive interests in the poultry industry that it was not allowed to be on my ministerial agenda.
“I have the information, Mr Speaker, and I have kept the records in many formats. This party has suspended me for telling the truth while I gave the First Minister, the deputy leader and the chairman of the party all the information...”
At that point, Speaker Robin Newton interjected to say that “we are way outside the scope of the motion”.
Mr Bell then added: “...about people who are sitting beside them and behind them and much more serious offences.”
Mr Bell also claimed that an instruction was sent out by two DUP Spads – John Robinson and Andrew Crawford – to try to stop Arlene Foster from being called to give evidence to the Public Accounts Committee about the scheme. He also alleged that they had said that “under no circumstances allow Jonathan Bell to be called”.
In response, the DUP branded Mr Bell’s allegations as “outrageous, untrue and unfounded”.
UUP leader Mike Nesbitt then said that Mr Bell had “whetted my appetite for the debate when it resumes next Monday”.
A DUP statement robustly rebutted Mr Bell’s claims. It said: “Following unsubstantiated allegations made by Jonathan Bell in the Assembly chamber under the cover of privilege, we wish to point out that:
“1. Timothy Johnston has no interests whatsoever in the poultry industry and does not benefit or have any family members who applied to or benefit from RHI.
“2. John Robinson has no personal interest in the poultry industry. His family home farm have chicken houses but are not part of the RHI scheme and never have been recipients or applicants.
“These are outrageous, untrue and unfounded allegations are nothing short of mud-slinging.”
Mr Bell and senior DUP figures, including leader Arlene Foster, are at odds about the events that led to cost controls being introduced into the widely over-budget scheme and its ultimate closure.
The Strangford MLA made his claims during an Assembly debate at which economy minister Simon Hamilton faced growing pressure to publish the names of the beneficiaries of the scheme.
As Mr Hamilton presented a draft plan to cut the costs of the scheme, he was met with demands from MLAs to disclose details of those in receipt of payments.
One DUP MLA, West Tyrone representative Thomas Buchanan, alleged that the biggest financial scandal in the history of devolution had been “hyped by the media”.
He told the chamber: “Of course, this has all been hyped up by the media to their own advantage. As a result of that, we have seen deplorable, downright disgraceful and outrageous attacks on the First Minister, our party leader.”
Mr Buchanan, along with the DUP minister, Simon Hamilton, refused multiple requests for interventions from other MLAs, meaning that they could not be questioned in the chamber.
Finance Minister Mairtin O’Muilleoir said: “The names of the beneficiaries should be published now. There are many questions hanging over this scheme in relation to people milking and scamming this system.”
He added that Mr Hamilton’s proposal “slows the runaway train that is RHI but it doesn’t stop the debacle.”
“The lack of honesty in dealing with the public has been disrespectful and shameful,” said Mr O’Muilleoir.
Ulster Unionist Steve Aiken told the Assembly that the Department for the Economy did not publish a list of beneficiaries on Friday after the threat of injunction.
He added that the RHI scheme is causing a “burden of £85,000 a day” on the NI budget and that the scheme “has become a veritable bonfire of DUP vanities”.
The SDLP’s Claire Hanna demanded to know what legal advice the Department for the Economy received when the decision was taken to withhold the names.
Alliance MLA Stephen Farry added: “The public interest lies in that transparency.”