Arlene Foster has said it is possible that an important segment of her sworn evidence to the RHI Inquiry is “wrong”, relating to when she was told about the belief that her Spad delayed RHI cost controls.
The DUP leader’s admission comes in one of 45 new witness statements which the inquiry published last night ahead of its final oral hearings next week.
In October, senior Stormont civil servant Andrew McCormick told the inquiry that Mrs Foster’s account of what happened on the night of Stephen Nolan’s seminal interview with the DUP leader where she responded to Jonathan Bell’s allegations simply could not be accurate.
Under pressure from the BBC man’s questioning in December 2016, the then-First Minister told the public that she had “no idea” why cost controls on the out-of-control RHI scheme had been delayed.
The inquiry has heard several pieces of evidence which show that her closest advisers – who spent hours preparing her for the huge interview – had been told by Dr McCormick of the allegation that it was her special adviser (Spad) Andrew Crawford who had worked in the shadows to delay cost controls.
However, Mrs Foster’s version of events – which like Dr McCormick’s evidence was given under oath – was that Dr McCormick had never said that directly to her until after the interview during a conversation which she seemed to recall clearly, describing his demeanour as “sheepish”.
Her account was endorsed by DUP minister Simon Hamilton, who was also in Stormont Castle that night.
However, Dr McCormick said that if that conversation did occur it could not have been after the recording – and therefore would have to have been before Mrs Foster told the public she had “no idea” why cost controls were delayed. He set out in detail how and why he had left Stormont before the interview even began and did not speak to Mrs Foster over the following days.
Now Mrs Foster has rowed back from what she told the inquiry, saying in a fresh written statement that Dr McCormick may be correct – but even if he is, she stands over her claim at the time that she had “no idea” why cost controls were delayed. She said: “Given the febrile atmosphere...it is possible that I am wrong about the sequencing of Dr McCormick telling me his view that Dr Crawford delayed the scheme.
“However, regardless of when Dr McCormick’s belief was communicated to me, I was already aware of the contents of Dr Crawford’s emails and would have taken the view that there was insufficient evidence at that time to draw any conclusions about the reasons for delay in the scheme, hence my reply to Mr Nolan that ‘I had no idea’.
“I would not have voiced publicly an unsubstantiated comment of that nature. Indeed, I remain of the view that to repeat this unsubstantiated allegation to Mr Nolan, particularly in the circumstances that prevailed at the time, would have been inappropriate.
“I did have no idea as to the facts of what took place and therefore I do not believe that my reply to Mr Nolan was contrary to the principle of openness within the seven principles of public life.”
Dr Crawford has also taken issue with a claim from Dr McCormick that the DUP spad told him at a dinner in October 2016 that he thought RHI funding was coming from the Treasury and therefore it was possible to “fill our boots”.
Dr Crawford said: “This statement is not true. At no time did I make this or any similar comment, I believe that Dr McCormick made this misleading and inaccurate comment to deflect any criticism of his role in relation to the RHI scheme and this has resulted in a great deal of negative publicity towards myself.”
Dr Crawford pointed out that Dr McCormick had been asked about the conversation on several occasions by the inquiry and had not used the phrase “fill our boots” until his final appearance before the inquiry.
In oral evidence to the inquiry Dr Crawford had been asked about the conversation and said that he could not recall what had been said.
But in a statement to the inquiry last month Dr Crawford said that he now believed the conversation could not have been at the October 2016 dinner because he does not believe he attended it.
However, when the inquiry put fresh evidence to Dr Crawford, in a fresh statement on Tuesday he accepted: “It appears I did in fact attend the 2016 NIFDA dinner.
“I did not remember having done so and am grateful to the inquiry for giving me the opportunity to correct the evidence in my last statement on the issue.”