Just the day before Arlene Foster told Stephen Nolan that she had “no idea” why cost controls on the RHI scheme were delayed, she was told that two of her senior advisers had been involved, a former DUP Spad has said.
In more than 200 pages of written evidence to the RHI Inquiry which are laden with bombshells about how the DUP operates, former DUP special adviser (Spad) Timothy Cairns made clear that he did not believe Mrs Foster had been candid with the public at the height of the scandal in December 2016.
In a three written statements to the RHI Inquiry which were published last night, Mr Cairns said that he had told Mrs Foster that her then senior adviser, Timothy Johnston, and her former Spad Andrew Crawford had played some role in the period where cost controls were delayed.
Mr Cairns – who remains a DUP member – said that he believed that Mrs Foster’s answer to Mr Nolan, during a high profile televised response to former DUP minister Jonathan Bell’s interview, and her later statement to the Assembly had not “fully expressed the view I had stated to her in the speaker phone call that Mr Johnston had given, at least initial, direction in this matter”.
Mr Cairns also said that as early as summer 2015 – the point at which cost controls were being delayed – Dr Crawford had told him that both he and Mrs Foster had been given “whistleblower” allegations that RHI was being abused.
The former Spad to Mr Bell also set out a dysfunctional picture of how Mr Bell operated, including the allegation that the minister got blind drunk while representing Northern Ireland in the US, leading to him falling asleep in a New York bar, waking up to order another drink and then being ejected from the premises.
In Mrs Foster’s interview with Mr Nolan, she was asked if she knew why there were delays in reining in the scheme, to which the then first minister replied: “I have no idea.”
The inquiry has already revealed that senior civil servant Andrew McCormick texted DUP Spads as he watched the interview to query that answer because over the days prior to that he 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. But Dr McCormick said he could not prove that Mrs Foster had been told, even though he would expect a minister to be fully briefed for such an interview.
Now Mr Cairns has set out how he personally alerted Mrs Foster – if she did not already know – to the role of DUP Spads in summer 2015.
He said: “The day before the Nolan interview was broadcast I telephoned Mr Bullick to inform him that I didn’t think the party’s communications strategy regarding Jonathan Bell was sound. I had been listening to the Nolan radio show.
“This was the first contact I had with Mr Bullick since May 2015. He put my call on speaker phone and Mrs Foster and Mr [Timothy] Johnston identified they were in the room. I suggested that Jonathan’s character needed to be put under the microscope and they agreed. I confirmed I would tell my story if needs be. Discussion then turned to more general RHI matters. I started to recount the June 2015 meeting and the fact that Mr Bell’s behaviour had not been dealt with and that Mr Johnston had directed I speak to Andrew Crawford.
“Mr Johnston clearly became uncomfortable and the conversation was quickly brought to an end.
“Mr Bullick telephoned me later that day to say...that Mr Johnston was uncomfortable with my discussion of the June 2015 meeting, as up until that point he was adamant that he had played no role in RHI. However, my revelation had undermined his position.”
Mr Cairns said that Mr Johnston – who rejects the claim – told him to work with Dr Crawford on RHI and he was told to seek the latest date possible for cost controls.
Mr Cairns said: “I do not believe that Mrs Foster, either in her Nolan interview...or in her statement, fully expressed the view I had stated to her in the speaker phone call that Mr Johnston had given, at least initial, direction in this matter.”
Mr Cairns also set out how he had been told that both Mrs Foster and her adviser had long been aware of allegations that RHI was being abused.
He said that in phone calls from June 2015 to March 2016 Dr Crawford had asked him to press officials to investigate alleged fraud because “he believed that people were keeping boilers running longer than necessary to maximise payment under the scheme which was against the rules and the spirit of the scheme”.
He said that Dr Crawford “stated they had been raised in the past with officials by himself and minister Foster”.
He said that his fellow Spad did not tell him the name of the whistleblower who had brought the issues to the attention of himself and Mrs Foster but that the substance of Dr Crawford’s conversation to him had been that there was “a fraud against public funds” which “needed to be stopped”.
Mr Cairns said he repeatedly raised this with senior civil servants but “in my view there was reluctance to deal with the matter as it would be costly to properly investigate”.