DUP had drive to centralise power, RHI inquiry told

The RHI inquiry has heard there was a “great drive to centralise power” within the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in its appointment of special advisers within the Northern Ireland Assembly.

The DUP’s chief executive Timothy Johnston accepted there was an “element of centralisation” in the appointment process.

DUP CEO''Timothy Johnston.''Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye

DUP CEO''Timothy Johnston.''Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye

In his evidence on Friday to the public inquiry, Mr Johnston, the DUP’s most senior official, admitted that the party process in appointing special advisers was not transparent and didn’t “comply with the letter and the spirit” of the legislation that was passed in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Mr Johnston served as a DUP special adviser from May 2007 until January 2017.

The RHI inquiry is investigating how costs for Northern Ireland’s Renewable Heat Incentive scheme spiralled. The RHI scheme was aimed at encouraging the use of green energy.

The RHI inquiry is also looking into allegations that some DUP special advisers attempted to delay the introduction of cost control measures in 2015.

Sir Patrick Coghlin, chairman of the RHI inquiry, said that the process in how the DUP appointed its special advisers and the code which the Assembly passed, were “two utterly divorced structures”.

He said it could not be a “satisfactory situation from a democratic point of view” if the codes were being ignored.

Mr Johnston also said there was a “disparity” in the process from department to department and that it was not done in a “consistent way”.

Mr Johnston also said he did not think former DUP minister Jonathan Bell was capable of heading the Department of Enterprise or capable of “any senior role”.

“I was not in favour of him being junior minister,” he added.

“It wasn’t that he wasn’t capable but the effort wasn’t always put in. There was a glamour to being junior minister.

“I feel a little uncomfortable. I feel torn in the sense of having to say this in public.

“A lot of people thought he was over-promoted.”

He told the inquiry that he advised former first minister Peter Robinson not to appoint Mr Bell as enterprise minister.

He added that Mr Bell was “very loyal” to Mr Robinson and that he was rewarded for this.

“Mr Robinson is his own man and makes his own decisions,” Mr Johnston added.

Mr Johnston also said he does not believe “we would be where we are today” if Mr Bell had not been given the job at DETI.

Mr Johnston also revealed that it took ten days for Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness to agree the joint letter about Brexit that was then sent to the UK prime minister in 2016.

He was referring to how parts of the Northern Ireland political system worked adding that he could say “a lot of things that could deflate people”.

“We didn’t want the public to see the elements of the sausage machine because it wasn’t always pretty,” he said.

Mr Johnston rejected claims he used a “carrot-and-stick approach” to get former DUP minister Jonathan Bell and his adviser Timothy Cairns to meet following a major row.

The pair fell out during a ministerial trip to London in June 2015 with Mr Cairns saying he wagged his finger at Mr Bell.

Mr Bell denied accusations that he threatened to break his finger. The inquiry heard that Mr Johnston contacted Mr Cairns when he was on sick-leave to try and get him to meet with him and Mr Bell.

Mr Johnston rejected Mr Cairns’ claims that he had told him he could either come back and take up the role as the minister’s spad or his relationship with the DUP was over.

Mr Cairns also claimed he was led to believe that Mr Bell was going to apologise to him.

“I think it’s likely I would have indicated that he (Mr Bell) learned his lesson,” he said. “I would have been sympathetic to Timothy, but I didn’t use a carrot-and-stick approach.”

No tears would have been shed by senior DUP members if Mr Bell and Mr Cairns had both left their roles, the inquiry heard.

Mr Johnston said many senior party colleagues were of the view that “one man was as bad as the other” following a row during a ministerial trip to London.

Mr Johnston reiterated his view that people in the party believed Mr Bell was “over-promoted”.

“There was a belief by some in the party that for this issue to reach the point that it did indicated a high degree of unprofessionalism,” Mr Johnston added.

Mr Johnston said that the special advisers never considered anyone other than their minister or First Minster Arlene Foster to be their line manager.

He agreed that advisers were considered to be “political creatures”, rather than civil servants.

Mr Johnston said that while “in a sense” he was aware of the HR practices, like annual leave, he was a “creature of the First Minister”.

He also stated that in the early days of his spad career “no one was interested” in the keeping of annual leave and that different government departments took different approaches.

Mr Johnston has admitted that a hierarchy of spads existed within the DUP.

He said that while there was no formal structure of “spad rankings”, he “absolutely acknowledged” that he was one of the most senior special advisers.

“I recognise the fact that I have probably been perceived - though it’s probably overstated in the media - of the importance of my role,” he said.

He agreed that his input on matters might be given “more weight”, adding that people came to him about general political queries.