The DUP MLA who made explosive allegations about the Renewable Heat Incentive told friends that he was working on a PhD while he was a minister, the News Letter can reveal.
Jonathan Bell, who last week said that he had been warned of the RHI crisis soon after taking over from Arlene Foster as enterprise minister in May 2015, was also working on a thesis about the man who appointed him – Peter Robinson.
However, Mr Bell’s lawyer has said that although he had started work on the project prior to becoming DETI minister in May 2015 he was not working on the project while in the role so it could not have in any way distracted him during the RHI crisis.
The unusual situation was known to some DUP members, although others in the party have told the News Letter that they were unaware of it.
The revelation that Mr Bell was working on an academic study of his then leader comes amid attempts to understand what was going on within Mr Bell’s department from the summer of last year on, as the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme spiralled out of budgetary control.
The News Letter understands that Mr Bell – who was suspended by the DUP at the weekend after last week’s forthright televised criticism of senior party figures – had told colleagues that Mr Robinson had agreed to turn over some of his personal papers to him for the study.
Mr Bell, who Mr Robinson co-opted into the Assembly to replace his wife, Iris, when she had to resign after a scandal in 2010, was exceptionally close to Mr Robinson and employed both Mr Robinson’s son and daughter-in-law in his constituency office.
The News Letter asked Mr Bell when he began the study, whether he was working on it during his time as a minister and whether it could have distracted him from the detail of what was going on with the RHI scheme.
The Strangford MLA directed us to his solicitor, the libel lawyer Paul Tweed.
Mr Tweed said: “My client would have expended no more than a couple of hours on discussions relating to a PhD, prior to his appointment as Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, and which had not been taken further in any event.
“It follows that this limited consideration could not, and did not, distract him from his Ministerial duties.”
Mr Bell also said in a text message: “While Professor Paul Bew has agreed to act as supervisor and I have been working on this I have not submitted a formal application to QUB at this stage.”
Lord Bew, the pre-eminent Irish political historian of his era, confirmed to the News Letter that he had met Mr Bell about a PhD proposal but said that the minister had never again contacted him about it.
Lord Bew, who at that point was professor of politics at Queen’s University but now chairs Westminster’s Committee on Standards in Public Life, said that he had met Mr Bell about the issue several years ago.
Lord Bew said that he believed that at the time Mr Bell was still a junior minister in the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, working closely with Mr Robinson, a post which Mr Bell held from May 2011 to May 2015.
He said that he could not recall what exactly the DUP man was keen to focus the thesis on, but said that he recalled him emphasising that the DUP could not have gone into government with Sinn Fein without Ian Paisley’s approval.
Lord Bew said that it was “in happier times” and that Mr Bell “seemed very keen to do it, but I didn’t hear any more from him”.
In 2013, Mr Bell – who has been a frequent visitor to China over recent years both in a government and a personal capacity – spoke to the News Letter about a Chinese university’s decision to award honorary professorships to both himself and the then first minister.
Mr Robinson was pictured beside a large wooden bust of Chinese philosopher Confucius during a ceremony at Hubei Normal University in May of that year.
Mr Bell had been made an honorary professor by a Chinese university two years earlier.
He said in 2013: “It’s a mark of not only international friendship, but recognition of the contribution by the person to developing relationships between Northern Ireland and the People’s Republic of China.”