Arlene Foster faced robust questioning at yesterday’s sitting of the RHI Inquiry about a meeting where Jonathan Bell’s Spad, Tim Cairns, says he passed on to Mrs Foster that there was a problem in the RHI scheme.
The meeting was in June 2015 – about a month after Mrs Foster had moved from the department running the scheme – but the DUP leader said she did not have a clear memory of it.
Inquiry chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin asked: “When you had this meeting at the start of June, why do you think you have no recollection of it, or had no recollection of it, or conflated it?”
Mrs Foster said: “Because I probably didn’t think it was an important issue at that particular time. I think it just became conflated into the second meeting when he asked would I mind if Andrew helped him out...”
Sir Patrick said: “You didn’t think it was an important issue? You had been responsible minister for the development of the RHI and Mr Cairns had come in to say that the minister – or DETI, the department – had dropped the ball. When you say you didn’t think it was important, is that consistent with your earlier evidence when you told us you weren’t interventionist once a scheme got going?”
Mrs Foster asked: “In what way?” Sir Patrick said: “In that if someone comes along and tells you that a scheme that has developed under your bailiwick has been in difficulties to the extent that the department has dropped the ball, one might have thought that you might have thought that was quite important.”
Mrs Foster said: “Well for the department at that particular point in time RHI was not the priority problem; the priority was the NIRO [a different green energy scheme]...”
Sir Patrick said: “There equally may have been a view that that made it all the more serious – here was another issue in which they had dropped the ball.”
Mrs Foster asked: “In terms of the NIRO?” Sir Patrick said: “In terms of the RHI.”
The DUP leader said: “Well, simply, I did not believe; the facts that were presented to me by [sic] I don’t have a clear recollection and I apologise for that, but I obviously didn’t think it was an issue of any moment at that time and it hadn’t been put across as a big issue by Mr Cairns and therefore I didn’t think it was of any issue.”
Sir Patrick said drily: “So you really didn’t bother too much with it.” The DUP leader replied: “Well, I had left the department then and was...”
Sir Patrick cut across her to say: “I know you had left the department. The point I’m trying to make to you – and I hope I am making it – is that you had been the responsible minister for the development of this unusual, new, special scheme. And here is a Spad coming in to tell you that something serious has gone wrong. It wasn’t just ‘we could have done it better’ – it was ‘there was a problem’, and that’s what they’d come to tell you.”
Mrs Foster said: “Well Mr Cairns had said that there was an issue with it and I think on his evidence he says that both I and Mr Crawford were surprised at that because we hadn’t been given any warning that there was an issue at that time.”
With audible weariness, Sir Patrick said: “Well, that is an even greater reason, as to why I asked you you think you’d forgotten it or conflated it.”
Mrs Foster said: “Well, I can’t answer that. I’m simply trying to explain that it was conflated into the second meeting that Mr Cairns came along to.”