‘Frustratingly mysterious’ riddle over RHI cost controls, says mandarin

The absence of any written record of who decided not to implement cost controls on the RHI scheme after it had been suggested that should happen is “frustratingly mysterious”, a senior civil servant has said.

In evidence to the RHI Inquiry yesterday, Andrew McCormick said that even after looking at the vast volume of documentation gathered by the inquiry, he could not explain who had taken what would turn out to be a fateful decision the year before the scheme ran wildly out of control.

Andrew McCormick will return today to continue giving evidence at Stormont

Andrew McCormick will return today to continue giving evidence at Stormont

Arlene Foster, who was the minister at the time, has said that she did not take that decision.

There had been a public consultation proposing cost controls and setting out the rationale for having a means to control the budget lest there be a sudden rush of applications – exactly what happened in 2015.

When asked about why that was dropped, Dr McCormick said yesterday: “I can’t understand why those things weren’t pursued.”

Inquiry chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin asked him who he thought took the decision to prioritise the expansion of RHI over cost controls and why they had done so, Dr McCormick said: “I don’t know.”

Sir Patrick said: “All I can say is that you share a lot of other witnesses’ [evidence] – nobody to date has taken responsibility for that.”

Dr McCormick said: “I don’t know, and I’ve no additional insight into the documentation that I’ve read that resolves that. I find it frustratingly mysterious.”

The former permanent secretary of Stormont’s Department for the Economy said that the absence of a ministerial submission to Mrs Foster to request a decision on the issue and to inform her of the consequences of such a decision was “impossible to explain or defend”.

The inquiry returned yesterday after a summer break and Sir Patrick said that he expected its oral evidence hearings to be completed by the end of October.

Up until now, the inquiry has been sitting for two weeks in every three, with the third week used to prepare for the public hearings. However, Sir Patrick said that now the inquiry intends to sit every week.

The inquiry has sat for 83 days and will sit for a further 30, Sir Patrick said, in hearing the remainder of the oral evidence.

Tomorrow the inquiry will hear for the first time from Jonathan Bell, the former DUP minister who broke ranks with an explosive televised interview in December 2016 when he accused colleagues of deliberately keeping the flawed scheme open.

In his written evidence, Dr McCormick sets out how in December 2016 Mr Bell arrived at DETI’s Netherleigh House headquarters for an arranged meeting to review the ministerial papers from his time in office.

Surreptitiously, the then DUP MLA was recording the exchange and would later use it to bolster his case that others in the party had acted against his wishes as minister.

Mr Bell arrived with a colleague, Ken Cleland, a man who had been appointed by Peter Robinson when he was first minster to the board member of the commission set up to develop the former Maze prison site. Dr McCormick said that he had previously met Mr Cleland on a visit with the then DUP health minister Edwin Poots to Germany to explore potential lessons or business options for the development of an elderly care centre at the Maze.

Dr McCormick said Mr Bell had told him he would bring a “researcher” along with him but he was “surprised when the accompanying person turned out to be Ken Cleland”.

He said that during their visit to Germany there had been some discussion about their shared Christian faith and therefore “there was an established degree of common ground on Christianity separately between me and both Jonathan Bell and Ken Cleland”.

“When they came into the meeting room in Netherleigh on 12 December 2016, they said that I was probably wondering what had brought the two of them together, and explained that they had become close companions in Christian fellowship.

“As is clear from some of the comments made during the conversation on 12 December 2016 and from the (unrecorded or untranscribed) opening of that conversation, they presented themselves as seekers after truth, indeed potentially as ‘agents of righteousness’.

“Even now, I am not able to interpret the basis of the agreement they had reached to come to see me, but it seems possible that Jonathan Bell thought Ken Cleland’s presence might reinforce the impression that his motivation was one of high religious principle (and it is noticeable that most if not all of the explicitly religious comments in the conversation, both recorded and unrecorded were made by Ken Cleland).”

Dr McCormick then set out the highly unusual proposition which was put to him by Mr Cleland about the man who was, unknown to him, secretly recording their encounter.

At the opening of the meeting, Ken Cleland said that he had had a prophecy for Jonathan Bell – my recollection is that Ken Cleland said that this spiritual statement had affirmed that Jonathan Bell would be vindicated in the scrutiny of the RHI process.

“I cannot say I felt comfortable about what they said (or indeed the whole situation) but I have to acknowledge that it may have made me somewhat more trusting of their presence and purposes than would otherwise have been the case.

“I do not recall any substantial conversation with Edwin Poots, Jonathan Bell or Ken Cleland about spiritual gifts such as prophecy, but I can only suppose that either Ken Cleland or Jonathan Bell or both had either direct or indirect information about my past and present personal beliefs that was enough to give them confidence that I would not react with obvious scepticism to the mention of a prophetic word.”

However, he added: “I am very clear in my view that I did not say anything on the substance of the RHI issues to Jonathan Bell because of what they said about their religious beliefs: I would have answered the substantive questions on the Scheme in the same way to a Minister of any other faith or none.”

Dr McCormick said that he had then met Mr Cleland a year later in December 2017 at the China UK Regional Leaders Summit at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast.

The civil servant said that Mr Cleland “told me then that he had had no idea that Jonathan Bell had been recording the conversation at the meeting on 12 December 2016, though he did not give any explanation as to why Jonathan Bell had brought him to the meeting in Netherleigh in December 2016”.

Dr McCormick also said: “I would highlight that the approach taken by Jonathan Bell in the conversations appears to include a carefully prepared set of detailed questions. It appears that he had limited direct recall of the events that were covered during his time as minister...hence some of his comments in the television interview with Stephen Nolan on 15 December 2016 were not well founded.”