Arlene Foster and Jonathan Bell could not agree on who should meet Boris Johnson when he visited Northern Ireland, leading to Mr Bell asking for an investigation, a senior civil servant has revealed.
In written evidence to the RHI Inquiry which the inquiry published last night, Andrew McCormick – who at the time in 2016 had been the most senior civil servant in Mr Bell’s department – set out how the issue developed.
He said that there has been “a dispute” between Mr Bell and Mrs Foster over an invitation to an event at Wrightbus which was being attended by the then mayor of London, in February 2016.
Dr McCormick – who was responsible for running a department with more than 500 civil servants – said that an unhappy Mr Bell had then tasked him as permanent secretary with investigating the circumstances “in order to ascertain why he had not been invited to attend the visit”.
Dr McCormick said that he had discussed the issue with the chief executive of Wrightbus and with the Northern Ireland Office, but had ultimately advised Mr Bell “that no further action should be taken”.
Dr McCormick said: “It was clear to me that Jonathan Bell’s reaction to what happened had been seen as inappropriate by the then First Minister Arlene Foster and her team.”
Intriguingly, Dr McCormick said that he was told – either by Timothy Cairns or by Mr Bell – that Mr Bell was “taking advice from Peter Robinson in this period”.
However, the mandarin also said: “I think I should emphasise that, for most of the time when Jonathan Bell was DETI minister, I got on very well with him: both as minister; and at a human level in all the ordinary day to day interactions that are inherent to the job.
“Jonathan Bell actively sought my advice and involvement...always appeared to respect my role and position, often with relaxed good humour, and I had absolutely no personal experience of his exerting (or attempting to exert) untoward pressure or bullying, as others have alleged.”
Dr McCormick took issue with a series of the claims made by Mr Bell in his dramatic interview with Stephen Nolan. However, he did endorse a key claim of Mr Bell’s – that others in the DUP had acted to delay RHI cost controls.
Dr McCormick also questioned some of what Mrs Foster had told the public in her interview with Mr Nolan.
The veteran official – who spent most of that day in Stormont Castle, involved in discussions ahead of Mrs Foster’s interview with Mr Nolan – said that he was “surprised by one key answer she gave”.
Mr Nolan had asked the then first minister here if she knew why there were delays in reining in the scheme, to which Mrs Foster replied: “I have no idea.”
Dr McCormick texted DUP Spads John Robinson and Richard Bullick as he watched the programme to query that answer because over the days prior to that Dr McCormick had on several occasions discussed his belief that it was Mrs Foster’s Spad, Andrew Crawford, who had been orchestrating the delays from behind the scenes.
In his statement, Dr McCormick told the inquiry: “I pointed out that I had warned them that I would have to give further evidence to the PAC on this topic when the issues around Andrew Crawford, and the family members who had benefited from the scheme would almost certainly become public knowledge.”