Politics is “a grubby world”, a former DUP Spad has said, prompting the chairman of the RHI Inquiry to marvel at the unpleasant nature of some of the behaviour which is being presented to him.
Timothy Cairns told the inquiry that he was prepared to publicly suppress his serious concerns about how the DUP under Peter Robinson had handled his allegations of bullying and physical intimidation by his then minister Jonathan Bell.
Mr Bell has rejected the allegations as being without foundation.
In December 2016, at the height of the RHI scandal, Mr Cairns sent a text message to senior DUP Spad Richard Bullick in which he said: “My view is [Jonathan Bell] needs to be exposed. I can’t expose my part without putting boot into [Peter Robinson]. Don’t get me wrong I’m very happy to do that...I have said to you Arlene and [Timothy Johnston] that I will fit my story in with the party narrative and what is best for party.”
Mr Bell told the inquiry last week that he saw that as part of a DUP conspiracy to smear him, with Mr Cairns willing to change his story to “fit”.
But Mr Cairns insisted that was not what he was saying and the only issue under discussion was whether he criticised Mr Robinson or the party wanted him to refrain from doing so.
He said: “The huge question, I think, for Mr Robinson is if he did receive allegations or direct comment from other people in relation to Mr Bell’s behaviour, I suppose the question that if I was a journalist I would ask is why did Mr Robinson appoint Mr Bell to the position that he was in?
“I was, I suppose, presupposing a journalist’s question if we were going to go down that line.”
Inquiry chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin put it to him: “You were prepared to fit in with the party narrative.”
Mr Cairns replied: “That’s correct, Mr chairman.”
Sir Patrick said: “There are no two ways of looking at what is meant by a party narrative in this country. It means, I suggest to you, that the party might have a version that may be closer or further away from the truth...you were prepared to contribute to whatever the party said.”
Mr Cairns said: “That’s correct.”
Sir Patrick said: “That seems a rather unpleasant way to run a party.”
Mr Cairns said: “I think that would be a question for the Democratic Unionist Party. I wasn’t in the leadership...”
Sir Patrick interjected: “I’m sorry. Please understand what I’m saying. If a political party decides to have a particular narrative which you know not to be the whole truth, do you say that’s a good thing?”
Mr Cairns replied: “I don’t think I am. I’m saying I think that’s probably a question for the party and for the party officers.”
Sir Patrick said: “But you were prepared to fit in with the narrative?”
Mr Cairns said: “I was.”
Later, Sir Patrick said: “If your experience is right, you had been the recipient of appalling treatment from Mr Bell, one way or the other. You knew that Mr Bell had a very deficient character in many ways and you felt that you could truthfully describe that.
“But you also believed that you couldn’t truthfully describe that without facing the question ‘well, if this man was so unsuited to be a politician, never mind a minister’, you would have to be asked ‘well, who was he appointed by, and what do you say about him?’ And you weren’t prepared to do that.”
Mr Cairns said he was prepared to do that, but the question had been “if the party are prepared to go along with me to do that”.
When asked by Sir Patrick “what if the party weren’t prepared to do that?”, Mr Cairns said “well, ultimately they weren’t, so I went with their line, Mr chairman”.
Sir Patrick said: “And that’s politics, is it?”
Mr Cairns said: “That’s politics, I’m afraid. It’s a grubby world.”
Sir Patrick said: “That’s something of an understatement, if you don’t mind me saying that.”
Mr Cairns said: “I think you’re correct, Mr chairman.”
That unhappiness at how the party had dealt with allegations against Mr Bell stemmed from a series of incidents, including an explosive row with Mr Bell in London in June 2015, Mr Cairns accepted that it had been an “unsavoury incident” in which he had acted inappropriately in how he spoke to his minister.
However, he said that it had led to Mr Bell menacingly threatening to break his finger, similar to another incident when he said he thought Mr Bell might punch him.
Mr Bell fired him in London, he said, but that decision had been countermanded by Mr Johnston and several meetings took place after which Mr Robinson and Mr Johnston decided that he should continue as Mr Bell’s Spad after apologising to the minister.
Mr Cairns said that he had been dismayed that Mr Robinson took Mr Bell’s side and did not take sufficiently seriously the allegations which he was making and that after the events of the last 48 hours he felt under intense pressure and went to his doctor who advised him to take time off work, which he did.
“I think it was probably that dismissal of it, that made me, I suppose for want of a better word, upset, I guess, that something that I thought was quite serious, that other people had made complaints about...stress heaped upon stress.”
He said that Mr Robinson was “very clear” that Mr Bell had denied trying to break his finger “and the weakness that he seemed to find in me was that I would admit guilt at an early opportunity; that seemed to be a weak thing from Mr Robinson’s perspective”.
Mr Bell said that he was ultimately given an ultimatum by Mr Johnston that he could either return to work for Mr Bell or stay on civil service sick leave for six months and then end his relationship with the party.
Dame Una O’Brien asked Mr Cairns if he wondered “why am I being treated like this”.
An emotional Mr Cairns said: “Of course I did, yes. It’s exceptionally upsetting and still upsetting to talk about.”
Asked about his decision to nevertheless return, he said: “I guess we’ve got mortgages to pay and bills to pay and yeah, life.”