Jonathan Bell knowingly misled the Assembly about what he then knew was the disaster of the RHI scheme – but doing so was the pragmatic way to get the scheme closed as quickly as possible, his former Spad has said.
In evidence which drew a shocked response from inquiry chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin, a vastly experienced retired Court of Appeal judge, Timothy Cairns set out how the two DUP men justified to themselves telling the Assembly something which he said neither of them believed to be true.
Although Mr Bell’s speech to the Assembly referred to “significant budgetary pressures” and the need to close the scheme for financial reasons, he referred to it as “beneficial” and denounced the criticism that “money has been squandered or investment lost”, saying plainly: “That is not the case.”
Mr Cairns – who over two days of evidence spoke frankly, even on several occasions where that meant portraying himself in unfavourable terms – said that the minister’s speech had been prepared by civil servants who, like the minister and his adviser, knew that the scheme was riddled with problems.
As the Assembly was being asked to finally close the scheme in February 2016, a regulatory impact assessment – a formal document which must accompany any piece of legislation – was drafted by departmental officials.
The document, which Mr Bell signed to indicate his endorsement, set out four potential options for the future of the scheme.
Even though the scheme was then being closed under urgent procedures due to being catastrophically over-budget and amid allegations it was being abused, the document set out a far brighter picture.
It claimed: “All four options show that the RHI has a positive impact on the NI economy - ie. the benefits outweigh the costs. The largest net benefit lies in keeping the scheme open.”
Mr Cairns said that he did not recall reading the document, and said it was “certainly a remarkable paragraph”.
He said that it reflected something similar which was in Mr Bell’s speech to the Assembly – made as he was asking MLAs to vote to urgently shut the scheme – and that he had been “somewhat uncomfortable” about it.
He said: “There kept on being references to how great the scheme was and about how this was an amazing scheme – of course, the immediate political attack on that is: Well, if it’s such a great scheme, what are you doing closing it?”
He said that the language jarred with the minister and himself because throughout the minister’s speech there was “positivity” when in reality they all knew that there had been a “cloud of gloom” over the department because of how seriously problematic the scheme had become.
However, he said that although they raised their unhappiness with officials over what Mr Cairns said was “a bizarre approach that was being taken”, with time at a premium to get the scheme closed they went along with what was proposed for the minister to say.
When asked if he and the minister believed what was in the speech, he said: “No. Absolutely not. No, no, no. You know the budgetary position – you scroll up [in the document] and it’s £95 million or whatever it is over five years, just on the page before. There’s certainly a disconnect between the two.”
Candidly admitting that both he, the minister and officials knew the scheme was “a disaster”, he said his view and that of Mr Bell was that it wasn’t worth further delaying action in order to finesse the language of the speech or the regulatory impact assessment.
Inquiry chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin said: “This is again the creation of a document that you knew to be completely false – just like Mr Bell’s signing the letter [to appoint his Spad] that he knew to be completely false and that’s what you mean, I think, by ‘real politics’.
“If you need to do it, you need to do it.”
Mr Cairns said: “You’re absolutely right. You know, I think to delay by a day or whatever at this point in time to debate the issues in that, I suppose you’ve got to pick your fights.”
Sir Patrick replied: “I just...I find it; I, personally anyway, find it very difficult to understand why a democratically elected body of people would think it was appropriate to say that this scheme – which you had now been told is going to have a massive impact on the general budget for Northern Ireland – is a positive scheme.”
Mr Cairns said: “It’s crazy, yes.”
Sir Patrick said: “It just beggars belief.”
Mr Cairns replied: “It beggars belief, you’re absolutely right.”
Yesterday the inquiry also hear firm documentary evidence which disproves some of the evidence which Mr Bell gave to the inquiry just last week.
Mr Bell told the inquiry that he never used private email accounts for departmental business, saying “I didn’t send stuff out to iPads or different systems. Everything I had, used the official system”. He went on to say that if his Spad had ever used a private email account he would have told him to use the official departmental systems.
The issue is significant because Mr Bell claimed that he never received an email sent to his personal email address which informed him that, after he had approved a ministerial submission for closing the scheme his decision was then overturned by others in the DUP outside his department.
He claimed that decision was hidden from him, yet emails show that Mr Cairns forwarded details of what had happened to Mr Bell within one minute of the change.
Mr Bell had told the inquiry: “It’s entirely unusual that it would have been sent to that account. That was just a private account I had, not a ministerial account, and all my ministerial business went through the ministerial account.”
But yesterday the inquiry went through a series of pieces of evidence which prove that Mr Bell had repeatedly used the email address firstname.lastname@example.org, including emails to and from his permanent secretary, his private secretary and the then first minister.