QC: Jonathan Bell sacrificed political career over RHI and is now a social worker

Jonathan Bell sacrificed his political career to tell the truth about the RHI scandal and has now returned to his past job as a social worker, his barrister yesterday told the RHI Inquiry.

On what is likely to have been the penultimate public hearing of the inquiry, Sir Patrick Coghlin, Dame Una O’Brien and Keith MacLean listened to final legal submissions from barristers for the DUP witnesses.

Jonathan Bell

Jonathan Bell

The previous day they had heard submissions from counsel for Stormont departments and Ofgem. Today the inquiry will hear representations from lawyers for individual civil servants who were involved in running RHI at various points, including the now head of the civil service, David Sterling.

Aspects of Mr Bell’s allegations have either been challenged by other evidence or disproven. However, some of what he told the public in his interview with Stephen Nolan in December 2016 has been shown to be correct and may not otherwise have ever emerged and the public inquiry is unlikely to have happened without his demand that it be set up.

Ronan Lavery QC for the former DUP minister said that he had spoken out “at enormous personal expense” and he had been “disparaged and demonised” for telling the public about some of what had gone on with RHI.

Mr Bell, he said, has been “accused of violence, drunkenness and incompetence” with the DUP attacking his character about competence in an attempt to undermine his evidence. The QC said that Mr Bell had “a distinguished academic background” and “a career in social work over a period of years where before going full time into politics he was a senior social work practitioner and that is the job to which he has now returned”.

Mr Lavery set out a host of posts to which the DUP had appointed Mr Bell, including the jobs of junior minister, DETI minister, general election candidate in South Belfast, a member of the Human Rights Commission and the Policing Board.

Mr Lavery said: “He would not have been appointed DETI minister if he was not more than competent for this high profile and complex role.”

Mr Lavery also drew attention to an inconsistency between Arlene Foster’s claim to the inquiry that she had serious concerns about Mr Bell’s abilities and behaviour and the fact that she had consistently publicly endorsed him.

In his written submission to the inquiry, the QC said: “At two major events which were well attended, one of which was the launch of Mr Bell as the Westminster candidate for South Belfast with the then First Minister Peter Robinson, the then DETI Minister Arlene Foster MLA was a guest speaker extolling Jonathan Bell’s skills and abilities and detailing why he should be a Member of Parliament for South Belfast.

“This was in addition to undertaking door to door canvassing with him recommending Jonathan Bell to the electorate of South Belfast.”

Referring to the evident concern of Sir Patrick Coghlin that Mr Bell had surreptitiously recorded a conversation with senior civil servant Andrew McCormick, Mr Lavery said that his client was not recording the conversation to use it against Dr McCormick but to “safeguard himself and guard the truth”.

However, he said that Mr Bell now accepts it could have been done “a different way”.

Yesterday the inquiry also heard from barrister Julie Ellison, representing most of the DUP witnesses. She said that at the outset of the RHI scheme Arlene Foster had not been warned about the potential for any overspend to impact on Stormont’s budget, something which if she had been told may have made it less likely that such information would have been forgotten within the department.

However, she stressed that Mrs Foster took the view that “it was all taxpayers’ money and it needed to be spent judiciously”. Ms Ellison said the inquiry has been “difficult and painful at times” for the DUP but that the party “welcomed the inquiry as a means of establishing the truth”.

Sir Patrick observed that Mrs Foster “has a saying that she’s accountable but not responsible...I’m not entirely clear what that means”.

On behalf of former DUP Spad Timothy Cairns, barrister Richard Smyth accepted a series of failures by his client but said that Mr Cairns had been open and honest with the inquiry as to where he had made mistakes or acted improperly.