Jonathan Bell has set out his version of his furious argument with his Spad, Timothy Cairns, during an important ministerial trip to London.
Referring to the blazing row between the two men which began over dinner in a London curry house and continued the following day over breakfast while officials were present, Mr Bell said that his Spad “frequently spoke over me and stated the department would take a different perspective [to] the one that I was considering...it was inappropriate and led to tension”.
Mr Bell said that he asked officials to leave and that Mr Cairns “initially refused to speak to me” but then came to the breakfast table “and when I attempted to address the issue he stated to me with his finger raised ‘now you’re going to listen to me, big balls’”. Mr Bell said he was “shocked and taken aback at this outburst” and he “dismissed him from further input and requested he did not attend the Secretary of State meeting. Timothy Cairns stated he was ignoring my request and decision and would attend the meeting regardless of my decision.”
He said that Mr Cairns eventually relented but that later that day Timothy Johnston phoned him to say that “he wanted to remind me that the Spads were appointed by party officers”.
He said that the relationship improved after Mr Cairns “apologised for his behaviour and agreed not to interrupt or talk over the minister”.
The inquiry has also revealed a text message which Mr Cairns sent to Timothy Johnston in June 2015, after the restaurant row, in which he said “I didn’t want to go with [Jonathan Bell] in May” and that “I want to put on record my disappointment and annoyance that at yesterday’s meeting [to resolve the issue] no mention was made of JB’s temper and that it was not dealt with. That is still an issue. I am prepared to go back but I trust he has been warned about that and his future conduct.”
Mr Johnston replied by text to say “that is an unfair characterisation of the meeting. It was up to you to raise any outstanding issues at the meeting. Believe me there were not to [sic] many working to get this resolved so bear that in mind... concentrate on moving forward”.
Mr Bell said “the supposed issue of my ‘temper’ was never mentioned at the meeting. This allegation is completely new to me.”
Mr Bell’s former private secretary, Sean Kerr, told the inquiry that Mr Bell had been “infuriated” by Mr Cairns at the London meeting.
Yesterday senior civil servant Andrew McCormick, who was present for the row, said that Mr Cairns’s intervention “jarred” because it was “a sharper intervention with a minister than I had seen before” and “right at the borderline of normal conversation, if not over it”.
Mr Bell also said that Mr Cairns – who will testify next week – had at another point “referenced Andrew Crawford, of whom he stated there had been a loud verbal altercation between David Sterling, then permanent secretary DFP, and Andrew Crawford, then DFP Spad, referring to the fact that Andrew Crawford had kept the RHI scheme open for the benefit of his family and there was now serious financial implications”.