Jonathan Bell today struggled to explain why he covertly recorded a sensitive private conversation with his former permanent secretary – after beginning their exchanges with their shared Christian faith and assurances he would stand up for the civil service.
Near the close of today’s hearing of the RHI Inquiry, the former DUP minister said that he views senior civil servant Andrew McCormick as a man of integrity – just moments before he attempted to explain why he felt it necessary to conceal a recording device on his person in order to ensure that he got a truthful account from Dr McCormick,
The inquiry has been given evidence that Mr Bell had a habit of making covert recordings and he had told the inquiry that he recorded a phone conversation with Dr McCormick and an exchange with his DUP MLA colleague Carla Lockhart.
A few days after the December 2016 BBC Spotlight programme, Mr Bell arrived to meet Dr McCormick at Netherleigh House just outside the Stormont Estate.
The then DUP MLA had with him with a colleague, Ken Cleland a man who had been appointed by Peter Robinson when he was first minster to the board member of the commission set up to develop the former Maze prison site, and was known to some people around Stormont, including Dr McCormick.
Dr McCormick said that when the pair arrived at his office that evening “they presented themselves as seekers after truth, indeed potentially as ‘agents of righteousness’”, with Mr Cleland claiming to bear a prophecy that Mr Bell would be vindicated in the RHI process.
Dr McCormick – who Mr Bell knew was a Christian – suggested to the inquiry that the pair had acted in a way which attempted to make use of that fact to lower his guard and get him to speak freely without any inkling that he was being covertly recorded.
When asked today whether Dr McCormick was right to have those concerns as to Mr Bell’s motives and conduct, Mr Bell said: “No. I regard Dr McCormick as a person of integrity....all I wanted to do was have a valid record of what my concerns were; were records expunged; was there interference - these issues were very live in my mind post the Spotlight programme.”
David Scoffield QC asked him why he had not chosen to use “more transparent ways” of securing that objective.
Mr Bell said: “I had sought and was [sic] extreme reluctance; I find [sic] real difficulty accessing the proper paperwork at that stage and I was being told that almost I would have to remember the reference numbers of the documents that I wanted to see – of which there was thousands over that five-year period; the one year; I don’t know how many there were; the one-year period. Certainly in the hundreds.
“I would have to recall the precise nature of it, I would have to prove that I had seen it before it could be seen [sic] to me.
“So all I wanted - am I clear in my mind [that] special advisers interfered in this system, that because of that interference there was this huge level of difficulty. And my concerns that they have told me that records had been changed and I have seen the amount of words that are used on this subject but I regard Dr McCormick as a very intelligent man and when I asked him things like ‘were records expunged’ and he said ‘yes’, I think in my view we’ve a reasonable understanding of that....”
Mr Bell continued in that vein, referring to everything from the scale of the RHI overspend to the fact that he had been a premature baby and a comment on his political career, but did not explicitly say why he covertly recorded the encounter.
Eventually, inquiry chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin interjected. He said: “Let’s just look at what Mr Scoffield is asking you about. You went to, I think, Netherleigh to look at documents and the convention or the protocol is you’re not going to be allowed to remove those documents.
“So you go to look at the documents with a man whom you recognise is a man of integrity.
“Why not tell him that you want to record the meeting?”
Mr Bell said: “Because I felt that I; the purpose of the recording was for my personal use.”
Sir Patrick said: “That’s fine. But why not tell him that you’re doing it?”
Mr Bell said: “A real concern that if records were being expunged and changed and amended would I be getting the accurate information.”
Sir Patrick repeated: “Why not tell him that you are going to record the meeting?”
Mr Bell said: “Because I felt that I would get a more accurate discussion from him if he was; I mean, first of all I’d been told previously that when discussing things with civil servants every civil servant is aware that a record doesn’t have to be kept in pen and paper. Secondly, I’d requested a meeting with him, and I just wanted to have a record for myself of the very real concerns. There’s no other answer for it than that.”
Sir Patrick said: “You have told us already that you regarded him as a man of integrity. All I’m trying to find out - and I hope I will be able to - is why, given that assumption on your part, your acceptance of his integrity, you found it necessary to carry out a concealed recording. Now one possible inference is that you did not consider him to be a man of integrity.”
Mr Bell paused for several seconds before saying: “My answer to that is that I do believe him to be a man of integrity. I also believe I needed a contemporaneous, accurate account and also under the advice....I understand that at that time, the permanent secretary had to act to [the wishes of] his current minister, who may or may not want information released.
“All I wanted was to have a record. And it may well have been a conflict with integrity as you place it so well, so be it.”
Sir Patrick continued to press for an answer, before eventually saying: “I still, I’m afraid, do not see why it was necessary to bring a concealed recording device.”