The brother-in-law of the DUP’s most powerful unelected figure, Timothy Johnston, has appeared to contradict Mr Johnston’s evidence to the RHI Inquiry by saying that he was one of the most senior party Spads.
John Robinson, the DUP’s chief spin doctor, told the inquiry that it was recognised within the party that Mr Johnston and another senior special advisor (Spad), Richard Bullick, had more clout that other Spads.
The issue is potentially significant because of the allegation that Mr Johnston set up a behind-the-scenes process in mid-2015 whereby he dealt directly with Tim Cairns, the Spad then in the department running the scheme, which resulted in cost controls being delayed.
Mr Johnston has denied that and has suggested that it would not have been possible because Spads were not accountable to him in any way and were of equal rank.
Mr Johnston, who will appear before the inquiry on Friday, is now the DUP’s chief executive.
Mr Robinson said in written evidence that there was “no formal hierarchy”.
But, when asked about the evidence of Mr Cairns – who said that Mr Johnston was more senior than DUP ministers – Mr Robinson said: “I think I would recognise – and I can only testify to my own experience – Timothy and Richard were by far the most experienced and therefore by virtue of their experience they had a seniority above the other special advisors.”
When asked if they were the most influential Spads, Mr Robinson said: “I certainly think yes, you could use that ... if they gave you an opinion, you would have taken that opinion on board.”
At one point, he said that Mr Johnston acted as the person to whom he reported when he was the party’s director of communications – even though Mr Johnston was then a full-time taxpayer-funded employee in Stormont Castle.
In 2016, Mr Robinson left his DUP job to become a Spad to DUP minister Simon Hamilton. He forcefully rejected the allegation of former DUP minister Jonathan Bell – made under Assembly privilege in January 2017 and not substantiated – that he had been told that ‘cash for ash’ had been kept open because Mr Robinson and Mr Johnston refused to allow it to be closed due to their families’ extensive interests in the poultry industry.
Mr Robinson said that led to intense scrutiny of his family and his wife’s family, something for which he felt a sense of “guilt”.
He said bluntly: “Jonathan told lies, he knows he told lies, and I’ll just leave it at that.”
Mr Robinson’s father-in-law, poultry farmer Hugh Rutledge, told the inquiry in writing that he had “no contact with John Robinson about applying to the RHI scheme”.
Mr Robinson said he only realised his personal RHI link around a year after the boilers were installed and once he was a Spad.
At that point, he said he told his minister but Mr Hamilton said there was no need for him to make a written declaration of interest: “The minister and I discussed it. We took the view – with hindsight, I think it was a mistaken view – that because I was not a decision-maker, then I needed to take no further action.”
It was put to him that as a temporary civil servant he was required to alert the civil service to his conflict of interest. He said: “I’m not going to try and explain away any of the issue from my perspective. I wish at that stage that I had.”
It was also put to Mr Robinson that the nature of the situation did not change in January 2017 – other than that his RHI link emerged in the media – yet he then said he would have no role on RHI. Mr Robinson said that he had always acted properly but it was felt necessary to step away from RHI in an attempt to “restore public confidence”.
Around that time, Mr Robinson said that he received a phone call from Mr Johnston and Arlene Foster where they told him that others in the DUP felt that he should resign – but neither expressed any view themselves, something which prompted Sir Patrick Coghlin to suggest it was a “pretty poor piece of leadership”. Mr Robinson said he was “absolutely adamant” he would not be resigning.
Last night a DUP source contacted the News Letter to say that the reason some party members wanted him to quit was because he had initially released a statement which said that “John Robinson has no personal interest in the poultry industry” – yet just a few days later, after DUP members had defended him on that basis, they learnt from the media of his family RHI link.