RHI Inquiry: DUP's director of communications starts giving evidence

The DUP's director of communications has started giving evidence to a public inquiry in Belfast into a botched green energy scheme.

John Robinson was special adviser to Economy Minister Simon Hamilton in 2016 until the Northern Ireland Assembly collapsed in January 2017.

John Robinson today at the RHI Inquiry

John Robinson today at the RHI Inquiry

The Renewable Heat Incentive scheme was aimed at encouraging the use of green energy.

It hit the headlines in late 2016 after it emerged that costs of running the scheme had spiralled due to over generous subsidies. The RHI Inquiry has been tasked with probing what went wrong.

In his written evidence Mr Robinson said he regrets not declaring earlier that his father-in-law was a recipient of the RHI scheme.

But Mr Robinson insisted he has "no financial interest" in his father-in-law's business, adding "at no time was my judgement conflicted".

This afternoon the inquiry is set to hear from former DUP special advisor Stephen Brimstone.

The inquiry heard that Mr Robinson became director of communications for the DUP at the age of 22.

Counsel for the inquiry put it to Mr Robinson that this was a "very young age to take on a role that sounds like it has some significant responsibility".

Mr Robinson said he had been working for the DUP as a press officer part-time since 2004.

When asked if others interviewed for the job, Mr Robinson said he was not sure.

He added: "The greater interview was that I had worked for the party, and people knew me, and respected my judgement."

Mr Robinson was appointed as special advisor to Economy Minister Simon Hamilton in May 2016 following Northern Ireland Assembly elections.

Mr Robinson told the inquiry that Mr Hamilton had told him that other candidates had been considered for the role before he was appointed.

Mr Robinson was asked whether there was a "hierarchy" of special advisers within the DUP team.

The inquiry had previously heard a claim that the First Minister's special advisers Timothy Johnston and Richard Bullick were at the top of that hierarchy.

Mr Robinson told the inquiry on Tuesday that Mr Johnston and Mr Bullick had "by far" the most experience of the DUP special advisers.

"If they gave advice, I would have taken it under consideration. You would have been foolish not to take it into consideration," he told the inquiry.

However Mr Robinson said Mr Hamilton made the ultimate decisions, and there were times when he relayed advice from Mr Johnston or Mr Bullick to the minister where the advice was not taken.

Following the Review of Administration, a number of departments were merged, with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment - which ran the RHI scheme - becoming part of the new Department of the Economy.

While Mr Robinson was the special adviser to the economy minister, he said he had no engagement with the RHI scheme in February 2016.

He said press releases about the scheme which appeared on the department's website at that time were written by department press officers and passed by the minister.

Mr Robinson said around the end of 2016 he was at a social function when someone criticised the DUP over the RHI scheme.

"I had absolutely no idea what this lady was talking about," he told the inquiry.

Mr Robinson said his family were dragged into the media spotlight in January 2017 when former DUP minister Jonathan Bell named him in a speech to the Northern Ireland Assembly as being one of a number of special advisers trying to block curbs to the RHI scheme because of "interests in the poultry industry".

The DUP at that time branded Mr Bell's claims "outrageous, untrue and unfounded".

Mr Robinson said he had nothing to do with the RHI scheme in 2015 or 2016 when there were discussions over introducing cost control measures and later of closing the scheme.

"No knowledge of it, no involvement in it, nothing to do with it whatsoever," he told the inquiry.

When asked why Mr Bell would name him, Mr Robinson replied: "only he can answer that question".

"The day he named me in the Assembly, I was as shocked as anyone. Only he can explain why he decided to do that," he told the inquiry.

Mr Robinson continued: "It was incredibly hurtful for me on a personal level, my family were catapulted into a media spotlight which they didn't deserve.

"They are hard working honest people. It impinged on not only my integrity but the integrity of my family.

"And, as we will come on to, my wife's family.

"You feel a sense of guilt for that.

"Jonathan told lies, he knows he told lies and I'll just leave it at that."