A blog in which loyalist activist Jamie Bryson alleged DUP corruption in relation to major wind energy subsidy NIRO was immediately brought to the attention of the then finance minister Arlene Foster, it has emerged.
Emails obtained by the RHI Inquiry show that Mrs Foster’s Spad, Andrew Crawford, forwarded it to her on July 8 2015 and she quickly replied to say: “That’s not good. Is TJ aware?”
Dr Crawford replied to say that he spoke to Timothy Johnston but that DUP MLA Paul Givan had “gone to ground and can’t be contacted” ahead of a major committee vote on the multi-million pound subsidy. DUP MLAs were unhappy over the proposal from their minister, Jonathan Bell.
Sir Patrick Coghlin asked: “What is it about whoever Mr Bryson is ... that [it] had to go to these dizzy levels of government?”
He commented on how in this case “we see the finance minister actually involved by these Spads – up until then, she’s not. All the discussion about RH I... goes nowhere near he r... the only difference is all of a sudden somebody is suggesting something a bit unlawful ...”
Separately yesterday, Mr Johnston was shown a series of emails which indicate that on several occasions over June 2015 Jonathan Bell used his private email account – rather than his ministerial email – to forward ministerial submissions to Peter Robinson’s personal email address or Mr Johnston’s personal email address. The submissions related to the NIRO, a major issue for developers of wind farms.
The evidence contradicted Mr Bell’s claim that he never used a private email for departmental business.
Mr Johnston was also pressed on why a ministerial submission to Mr Bell was altered to remove a reference to Mrs Foster’s office – just after the head of the civil service had said there would be a “huge audit issue” around RHI and Mrs Foster was “better not implicated”.
An email from Timothy Cairns, then the Spad to Mr Bell, alerted Mr Johnston to his removal of the reference. Mr Cairns has said that he did that in an attempt to curry favour with the DUP leader.
However, Mr Johnston said he did not understand why that would have been the case because he believed it reflected well on Mrs Foster that she was intervening to speed the closure of RHI.
Mr Johnston also disputed some evidence which Mr Cairns has given about a phone call at the height of the scandal in December 2016.
Mr Cairns said that the call to Arlene Foster’s Spad Richard Bullick led to him being put on speaker phone in Stormont Castle and Mrs Foster and Mr Johnston identified themselves in the room.
He said that when he mentioned Mr Johnston’s role in the process leading to him delaying cost controls Mr Johnston “clearly became uncomfortable and the conversation was quickly brought to an end”.
That night, Mr Cairns said that Mr Bullick phoned him to say that Mr Johnston was “uncomfortable” with the discussion because he had been “adamant that he played no role”.
Mr Johnston accepted that the call took place and accepted that Mr Cairns had said on the call that Mr Johnston had “directed” him towards fellow Spad Andrew Crawford – though Mr Johnston disputed that had been specific to RHI.
Mr Johnston also rejected suggestions from Andrew Crawford, Mrs Foster’s former long-standing advisor, that he had been “hung out to dry” by the party who had acquiesced in Dr Crawford being named in relation to RHI in a bid to protect Mr Johnston.
Mr Johnston insisted that it was not his desire to see Dr Crawford – who he described as a friend – named.
He did accept that he had gone to senior civil servant Andrew McCormick and asked him to look up details of Dr Crawford’s relatives who between them have 11 boilers on the scheme, something which was not publicly known at the time.