Former DUP minister Jonathan Bell has claimed that the party’s ministers were not in control of their special advisers – despite legally appointing them and being accountable for their conduct.
In written evidence to the RHI Inquiry, Mr Bell claims that he was told that DUP special advisers (Spads) Timothy Johnston and Andrew Crawford were able to direct his own Spad, Timothy Cairns, so that Mr Cairns was able to delay cost controls on the RHI scheme even after it was known that it was out of control.
He said that there was a hierarchy of DUP Spads, with Timothy Johnston – who is now the powerful DUP chief executive – at the top and able to direct the others as to what they should do.
Mr Cairns has accepted that he sought to delay reining in the scheme, but has made clear that he did so at the behest of others in the DUP and that he had no personal interest in the scheme.
Mr Bell’s statements contain some highly-colourful language – including the claim that his Spad derisively told him “now you’re going to listen to me, big balls” during a heated argument – and allege that the DUP is ultra-centralised.
But on the substantive issues which the inquiry is investigating, and in particular on the allegations which he first made public in an explosive televised interview with Stephen Nolan in December 2016, Mr Bell’s three statements are strikingly light on detail.
Repeatedly throughout the statements Mr Bell – who will today appear before the inquiry for the first time and be questioned on his allegations – states that he cannot recall the precise details of what happened or that he does not have evidence to back up what he is alleging.
And a written statement from Mr Bell’s former private secretary, Sean Kerr, adds to an earlier claim by Mr Bell’s former Spad that he was not across the detail of what was going on within his department and frequently did not read submissions which were sent to him.
Mr Kerr told the inquiry that he was often present when Mr Bell read ministerial submissions in the ministerial car and “I formed the impression that he would read those documents in a summary fashion and rely on the special advisor’s guidance...on several occasions the minister remarked directly to me that he had not read all the detail of the submission or annex, but was guided by the special advisor’s comments”.
Mr Bell rejected a claim by Mr Cairns that he had tried to break his finger and swung a punch at him on one occasion, saying that “no such incident took place”. The former MLA said that his relationship with Mr Cairns, was “generally good, following a long history of working together when junior minister in OFMdFM”.
He said that they “had meals together socially” and Mr Cairns and his wife “hosted us for meals” in their home, adding that “Timothy frequently expressed support for me to me and on one occasion during this period stated he believed in me as a politician”.
However, he said that Mr Cairns on “many occasions...spoke over me in ministerial meetings, contradicted me and... on one occasion told me he would tell me what to do.”
He said: “My perspective is that Timothy saw himself as working for the other Spads as opposed to the minister and felt intimidated by them.
“An example of this was when he confided in me that Timothy Johnston had told him to get out and canvass for Gavin Robinson – then running for MP in East Belfast – while he was a Spad or he wouldn’t have a job as Spad in the morning.”
He said that Mr Cairns “saw himself as more accountable to the DUP Spads than to the minister as he stated ‘ministers come and go but Spads remain’.”
He added: “I don’t regard Timothy Cairns as having any interest in keeping the tariffs high and it was the pressure exerted on him by the other Spads – and apparently from his evidence, the First Minister – that led to the more serious detrimental consequences and this had an adverse impact.”
Mr Bell said that Mr Cairns “was not my first choice as I regarded some of the other Spads to have superior skill sets. However, as they were taken I agreed to take Timothy Cairns”.
He also said that when he was first appointed as a minister “I was told by the DUP who my Spad was and then subsequently advised to sign for them...I was informed by Timothy Johnston that all Spads were appointed by DUP party officers”.
But despite the bad blood between Mr Bell and Mr Cairns, the former minister agreed his Spad had not been the instigator of delays to cost controls. He said: “It was never my view for delay, or to be fair do I believe it to be the view of Timothy Cairns, and believe that the pressure was from outside the department”.