Máirtín Ó Muilleoir: We got it right. The DUP got it wrong. Absolutely

Sinn Fein's Mairtin � Muilleoir sat back in his chair, arms crossed, then repeated of his own work: "It is a good letter"
Sinn Fein's Mairtin � Muilleoir sat back in his chair, arms crossed, then repeated of his own work: "It is a good letter"

For three and a half hours yesterday, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir gave evidence of exemplary Sinn Fein governance, amid DUP failure and wrongdoing.

Asked if he had read the code for appointment of Spads, he said with confidence: “It it is a document I have read.”

Did he agree there was a personal nature to such appointments? “Absolutely, yes.”

Had he, unlike the DUP, ensured there was a pool of candidates for his Spad post? “Oh yes.”

But his letter announcing Eoin Rooney’s appointment to the role did not mention a pool. Could he provide the other names? “Absolutely.”

Mr Ó Muilleoir explained he would only have appointed someone who worked “tirelessly” including weekends and 70 hour weeks.

As the confirmation letter Mr Ó Muilleoir sent to David Sterling, head of the civil service, in 2016, was shown on a screen to the inquiry, the former Sinn Fein finance minister said it was the first time he had seen it. “It’s a very good letter,” he said, adding that it explained well (his emphasis) why he made his choice.

Dame Una O’Brien interjected, apologetic for being puzzled: “It is the first time you’ve seen it?”

The first time since he wrote it or drafted it, Mr Ó Muilleoir explained, sitting back in his chair, arms crossed, then repeating of his own work: “It is a good letter.”

Then the witness was asked if there was a hierarchy of Spads, and he was shown evidence from Aidan McAteer, who said that he co-ordinated and managed the work of advisors and the Sinn Fein team.

Mr Ó Muilleoir did not quite agree that there was a hierarchy but conceded that some Spads had more weight than others. Were some more senior? “Absolutely.”

He added: “We knew when Aidan McAteer contacted us we knew he was speaking on behalf of the Deputy First Minister [Martin McGuinness].”

Then Mr Ó Muilleoir gushed about Mr McGuinness. The former IRA commander expected a lot of his Stormont team, and indeed Mr Ó Muilleoir had “no doubt in my mind that Mr McGuinness” would expect even higher standards that than those in the government code.

Mr Ó Muilleoir said the set-up in which Mr McAteer sat above Spads followed the “attack on the peace process” when Jim Allister MLA blocked people who had serious convictions being Spads.

Sir Patrick Coghlin asked how this sat with the code. Mr Ó Muilleoir said Sinn Fein was not going to “discriminate” because of the 2013 Spad law and “that it was our decision not to yield at all to the criticisms of Mr Allister”.

Mr Ó Muilleoir was asked about a February 2016 Stormont committee exchange in which he opposed sudden closure of the RHI scheme. Yes, he said, but they did not know about abuse of the scheme, they were just trying to be fair to “genuine people in distress”.

Indeed, Mr Ó Muilleoir appeared to boast that a meeting in February delayed closure. “I am glad the minister did not go ahead as requested.”

Then Mr Ó Muilleoir was asked about his repeated use of ‘we’ in an email. “My email may be clumsily worded, I was trying to let her down gently [a woman about RHI].”

Later Mr Ó Muilleoir joked about his use of we on other occasions (“... there may be delusions of grandeur in using the term we, instead of I ...” he said at one point and later “...using the royal we again...” ).

Further explaining his language, he said: “I wouldn’t be the first politician to try to claim success for something.”

The suggestion that Sinn Fein knew about the manipulation of RHI was, he said, “a smear”. There was no evidence earlier in 2016, he said.

But when Mr Ó Muilleoir did learn of the problem he acted firmly: “I had a responsibility to the public purse.”

The civil servants acted likewise: “My officials were red hot on this issue.”

Mr Ó Muilleoir himself? All action it seems. “I remember saying [to an official] is this a paper loss? ... He left me under no illusion this needed to be cracked ...”

As for his Spad? “Looking back, I certainly made the right appointment,” Mr Ó Muilleoir said as an email from Mr Rooney was displayed on the screen, discussing options for resolving RHI.

Only the DUP were damned from his testimony yesterday. As the position on RHI worsened during 2016, the people around Mr Ó Muilleoir wondered: “What is going to emerge next with the DUP.”

Explaining the increasing emergence of Ted Howell’s name in e-mails from late 2016, Mr Ó Muilleoir said that there was “a crisis emerging in the DUP”. Mr Howell was experienced in dealing with such situations, and so the veteran republican, who was in retirement, was “brought back to chair a crisis committee”.

And was that an email in which Mr Ó Muilleoir was asking Mr Howell’s permission to proceed? The one where he asked Mr Howell: “Would you be content if I were to sign off on the business plan?”

Oh no. He was only asking Mr Howell “about the timing”.

Mr Ó Muilleoir was reminded he had wanted an inquiry in which there was “no hiding place”. Yes, he agreed.