An account of what happened on the night of Stephen Nolan’s seminal interview with Arlene Foster where she responded to Jonathan Bell’s allegations simply cannot be accurate, a senior civil servant has told the RHI Inquiry.
Under immense pressure from the BBC man’s questioning, the then-First Minister told the public that she had “no idea” why cost controls on the out-of-control RHI scheme had been delayed in 2015.
The inquiry has heard several pieces of evidence which show that Mrs Foster’s closest advisers – who spent hours preparing her for the huge interview – had been aware of the allegation that it was Mrs Foster’s special adviser (Spad) Andrew Crawford who had worked in the shadows to delay cost controls.
Although he has always denied that, senior civil servant Andrew McCormick – who had been in the department running the scheme at the point where the delay happened – had told Mrs Foster’s key advisers Timothy Johnston and Richard Bullick that it was his belief that Dr Crawford was behind the delay.
However, Mrs Foster’s version of events – which like Dr McCormick’s evidence was given under oath – was that Dr McCormick had never said that directly to her until after the interview.
Last month she told the inquiry: “Well, I became aware of his belief after the recording of ‘The Nolan Show’. As I said, ‘The Nolan Show’ was recorded in my office, my First Minister office.
“Opposite my First Minister’s office is the junior minister’s office, and, once the recording was over, I went into the junior minister’s office. I think Richard and Timothy stayed behind to speak to Mr Nolan and try and correct some of the misapprehensions he had around the scheme...and then Andrew, as I recall, and, I think, Simon Hamilton, although I don’t have it in my statement, but I think Simon was around as well — and Andrew sheepishly said it was his belief that Andrew Crawford had delayed the scheme.
“So it was after the recording, as it were, of The Nolan Show that I had that direct intervention from Andrew McCormick.”
Mrs Foster appeared to have a clear memory of some conversation with Dr McCormick about the issue, recalling that he had been “sheepish”.
She went on to say: “Whether it was that evening, which I believe it was, or whether it was the next day, it certainly was after ‘The Nolan Show’ that I spoke directly to Andrew about the issue.”
DUP minister Simon Hamilton, who was also there that night, gave similar evidence to the inquiry about a conversation with Dr McCormick “definitely after the interview”.
However, Dr McCormick said that if that conversation did occur it could not have been after the recording – and therefore would have to have been before Mrs Foster told the public she had “no idea” why cost controls were delayed.
Dr McCormick said that the DUP had kept him at Stormont Castle so that he – as someone outside the party whose integrity was respected – could assert to Mr Nolan that a ‘fact sheet’ prepared for the broadcaster was accurate.
However, he said that Mr Nolan had arrived late – about 8pm – meaning that he had only a 30-second conversation with him in the foyer outside the First Minister’s officer. That, Dr McCormick told the inquiry, had left him “very frustrated that having been kept waiting in the expectation of a substantive engagement with Stephen Nolan, [it] didn’t happen and I went straight home – so there is no possibility that I had a meeting with Arlene Foster or Simon Hamilton that evening between the recording, which happened between eight and nine, and the broadcast of the Nolan interviews later that evening.
“That could not possibly have happened. And indeed the next day, the minutes of the NICS board record me as being at the NICS board from first thing on Friday morning. I had the conversation with Tim Cairns [as well as] with Chris Stewart in Netherleigh around lunch time that day. I had the long phone call with Máirtín Ó Muilleoir and his colleagues later that day.
“I don’t see any possibility – and I would remember going to Stormont Castle to meet the First Minister – I didn’t do that on the Friday, and I was at home all weekend, so that, I’m afraid, is not possible – it’s not possible for what Arlene Foster and Simon Hamilton have described to have happened.”
Later, when Mrs Foster’s interview being broadcast, Dr McCormick texted DUP Spads in incredulity at her “no idea” answer. He wrote: “Difficult to understand why she said she had no idea...when I have said I would have to tell [a Stormont committee] that”.
Mrs Foster went on to give a statement tot he Assembly several days later which also left Dr McCormick concerned as to her level of candour.
Yesterday Dr McCormick told the inquiry: “I’m very concerned by what I’ve had to say this morning.” He said his concern related both to what Mrs Foster told the BBC and to what she told the Assembly.
He also told the inquiry that he had a clear memory from the night when the Nolan interview was recorded in Stormont Castle of someone saying “we don’t want to name Andrew Crawford because he’s done nothing wrong” but he could not recall who had said it.