RHI inquiry: expert tried to limit material going to inquiry

The message was sent to Chris Johnston who testified yesterday
The message was sent to Chris Johnston who testified yesterday

A man employed at Northern Ireland’s main wood pellet producer who is a close friend of Arlene Foster’s former advisor appears to have attempted to limit material going to the RHI inquiry, it has been revealed.

Mark Anderson, a biomass expert who worked at Ulster University before moving to Fermanagh wood pellet firm Balcas, last year asked another friend who was involved with the RHI scheme to stop using the letters ‘RHI’ in emails.

Andrew Crawford, who was the DUP leader’s key advisor for most of the last decade, previously told the inquiry that Dr Anderson lives near him, “our families are close friends, he rented accommodation from me in Belfast when he was a student and we both socialised together and attended the same church as children”.

The inquiry has already obtained and published some candid text messages between the two men.

Yesterday’s public hearing of the inquiry was told that it has compelled the production of multiple WhatsApp messages from Dr Anderson, several of which were sent to Chris Johnston, the head of the Environment and Renewable Energy Centre at the Department of Agriculture’s Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute.

On January 3 2017, at the height of the storm around the scheme, Dr Anderson sent a message to Mr Johnston saying: “Some time you have five minutes, will you check your emails from July 15 to September 15 to see if you have anything on the closure of the RHI?”

Barrister Donal Lunny put it to Mr Johnston yesterday that there was no response to that message which had been disclosed to the inquiry.

When asked if he could remember if he responded to the message, he said: “I can’t remember. I’m sure I would have looked and then I would have ... I don’t actually have memory of it but I suspect I would have rung him – I wouldn’t just have left it hanging – to see if I had anything.”

Mr Johnston said that Dr Anderson did not explain why he was looking for the emails and he did not remember inquiring. Mr Lunny said: “Would that not be the natural thing to do?”

Mr Johnston said: “Yeah, it would be ... I just can’t remember asking him ... But I suspect it would be to see was there anything out there in the ... on the emails; was there anybody saying anything about the closure; that’s what he must have been asking.”

Dame Una O’Brien asked him if he was “absolutely sure” that he couldn’t recollect what had happened, noting that “it was only January of last year”.

Mr Johnston said: “Sure. About what?” Dame Una said: “About the phone call that you had with Mr Anderson after you got this WhatsApp message – are you absolutely sure you can’t remember it because I’m just noting that it’s not that long ago?”

Mr Johnston said: “No, it’s not that long ago. If I could remember what he said, I’d let you know.”

Then the inquiry was told that on July 17 last year Dr Anderson received a notice compelling him to release all information in his possession relevant to the inquiry.

Three days later, he sent a message to Dr Johnston in which he said: “Please don’t put the letters RHI in my emails any more.”

Mr Lunny asked Mr Johnston if he recalled speaking to his friend about that, given that it was less than a year ago. Mr Johnston said: “I think the reason for that is quite innocently any mention of RHI in an email would mean that it would be something that would need to be submitted to the inquiry, whether it was relevant or not ... then there’d be more information that would have to be submitted.”

Chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin said: “So they couldn’t be found.” Mr Johnston replied: “Yeah.”

Sir Patrick said: “So any documentation about the RHI couldn’t be traced.” Mr Johnston replied: “No, I don’t think that was the direct link. I think it was just that if it’s got RHI in it then those particular documents may not be relevant ...”

Sir Patrick said that removing ‘RHI’ meant it would “leave it up to him – or to you – to decide whether or not those should be discovered, even if they are about the RHI in some way”.

Mr Johnston said: “Well, there is that. But I did subsequently search for every single email since these particular dates and I submitted those to the inquiry as well.”