Sam McBride: Bell’s significance stems from his multiple ties to Peter Robinson

Arlene Foster and Jonathan Bell. Photo: Presseye
Arlene Foster and Jonathan Bell. Photo: Presseye

Although he has been an Executive minister, many people will have little knowledge of Jonathan Bell and may wonder whether he matters.

He certainly does not have the seniority of Nigel Dodds, the political longevity of Sammy Wilson or the profile of Gregory Campbell.

But although Mr Bell is in the second or third tier of the DUP hierarchy, he has multiple ties to the man who until a year ago controlled the DUP: Peter Robinson.

Mr Bell has been the ultra-acolyte of Mr Robinson within the DUP, his loyalty surpassing that of every other colleague.

When Peter Robinson dramatically announced on television that his wife Iris had been having an affair and released a statement from her saying that she was quitting politics, the DUP was left reeling for days.

READ MORE: In full: DUP MLA Jonathan Bell’s Nolan interview
But Mr Bell – who was then a councillor but just a month later would be appointed to succeed Mrs Robinson as Strangford MLA – was one of the first DUP members to enthusiastically come to his leader’s defence.

In a breathless tribute to a political figure who at that point was mired in scandal, he said: “In many senses Iris Robinson embodied the Democratic Unionist maxim of Service Ever, Surrender Never. She is a role model for us all in public life.”

Mr Bell quickly employed one of the Robinsons’ sons as his constituency office manager and the Robinsons’ daughter-in-law as another assistant.

Later, Mr Robinson appointed Mr Bell as a junior minister, keeping the trusted MLA at his side in Stormont Castle for four years, and then promoted him to succeed Arlene Foster as Enterprise Minister in May last year.

Partly because of that unrelenting loyalty to a DUP leader who was not popular with a swathe of his own party, Mr Bell was not universally popular within the DUP Assembly group.

Prior to yesterday’s revelations, one individual who has known him for decades and observed him closely within the DUP, told me that “Jonathan Bell will do what’s right for Jonathan Bell”.

That may be unfair to Mr Bell, but it was the perception of some of his colleagues.

Given the crisis in which Mr Bell has found himself this week, with growing hints that he would be taking the blame for the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme, perhaps he has been longing for the days when he was working alongside his political mentor, Mr Robinson.

Mr Robinson also once undertook an emotional television interview prior what he knew was a looming crisis.

The strength of the bond between Mr Robinson and Mr Bell is in stark contrast to the latter’s relationship with the current first leader and DUP leader, Arlene Foster.

In dramatic TV scenes last night, we saw that relationship collapse as Mr Bell broke ranks from the party and pointed the finger at senior colleagues.

READ MORE: Bell: Foster shouted at me to keep disastrous RHI scheme open