Jonathan Bell unclear on when key RHI conversation was

Jonathan Bell arrives at Stormont with his solicitor Denis Moloney for the  RHI Inquiry.
Jonathan Bell arrives at Stormont with his solicitor Denis Moloney for the RHI Inquiry.

Jonathan Bell has told the RHI Inquiry he is unsure about when he was told that DUP Spads would not let the RHI scheme be discussed because of family links to the poultry industry.

The claim, which Mr Bell says he was told by his Spad, Timothy Cairns, was first made by Mr Bell in the Assembly in January 2017, after his interview with Stepehen Nolan.

Mr Cairns says he does not share Mr Bell’s recollection.

Many of the allegations which Mr Bell made yesterday were not his own as such, but references to inquiry material – and his interpretation of that material – which as a witness he has been given access to but which has not yet been made public.

Among those claims, he alleged that David Blevins, Sky News’ long-standing Ireland correspondent, had been advising the DUP on “how to discredit me and destroy the information I’d given” by attacking his Christian faith.

Mr Bell suggested he had come to that conclusion based on evidence which has not yet been published.

However, Sky News immediately issued a firm rebuttal, saying “The suggestion by Jonathan Bell that David Blevins advised the DUP on anything is completely and utterly untrue.”

Mr Blevins, who has spoken publicly about his Christian faith, took several years away from journalism to study theology.

Mr Bell also alleged that David Gordon, then the Executive’s press secretary, had described him as “a monster who had to be put to sleep”.

Mr Bell said that his Spad had told him: “Ministers come and go; Spads remain.”

And he claimed that Mr Cairns also told him “in garish and lurid detail” about “the sexual misbehaviour of two DUP ministers”, something which Mr Cairns claims Mr Bell in fact told him.

Mr Bell said that the permanent secretary of his department, Andrew McCormick, had tried to raise RHI at ‘issues meetings’ within the department in June or July of 2015.

However, in his written evidence he told the inquiry when the issue of the RHI scheme was raised “my Spad referred to other Spads – Andrew Crawford, Timothy Johnston and John Robinson – as individuals who did not wish the RHI scheme to be on the agenda”.

The inquiry spent considerable time attempting to pin Mr Bell down on when that crucial conversation took place.

David Scoffield QC asked him: “Can you remember when he said that to you?”

Mr Bell then referred to his much later conversation with Dr McCormick in December 2016 but said eventually: “I can recall exactly what happened there; I just can’t say to you ‘this happened precisely at this meeting on this date at this time’.”

Mr Scoffield then asked if Mr Bell could narrow down the period in which he says the comment was said. Initially, Mr Bell said it had been “at some point...running up to making the decision” to introduce cost controls – summer of 2015.

Mr Bell then said he thought the comment had been in 2016, when the scheme was closing.

Mr Scoffield then asked Mr Bell: “Whether it was 2015 or 2016, when you heard that what did you do about it?”

Mr Bell said that the action that he was taking involved his officials bringing him further information about RHI and he then asked Mr Scoffield: “Is there a single opportunity where I had the opportunity to sign and didn’t do it?”

Politely but firmly, Mr Scoffield told Mr Bell: “I want to remind you of the nature of the procedure in which we’re involved here; it’s not for you to ask the questions – it’s for you to answer the questions. Now, I’ve asked you a question I think on several occasions...if you were told by Timothy Cairns that others were making or influencing decisions on the basis of private interests, why did you not do something about it at that stage?”
Mr Bell replied: “Because the, well, I think, uh, towards the end of the period, ah, first of all I’d told the permanent secretary at the time to get me the information, the submission...but the action for me as minister was to get the detail and to get it signed.”

Dr Keith MacLean, the inquiry’s technical assessor, put it to Mr bell that the allegation about Spads stopping the issue being discussed “sounds like a conflict of interest issue that is being raised with you – what were your actions upon hearing that?”

Mr Bell said: “To close as immediately as we could.”

Dr MacLean responded: “But closing has nothing to do with...the personal interest or the impropriety that is suggested by what you’re saying.”

Mr Bell said: “This was an unsubstantiated allegation by the special adviser at the time.”

When repeatedly pressed to answer as to what he had done about the allegation, Mr Bell eventually said: “I regard the person that knows that information as to be the person to deal with it – not the person that he gossips about it to.”