RHI Inquiry: John Robinson was DUP’s top spin doctor, even before graduating

John Robinson (right) has been a key DUP backroom figure since 2007
John Robinson (right) has been a key DUP backroom figure since 2007

John Robinson had not even finished university when he became the DUP’s director of communications, he told the RHI Inquiry.

After studying Communication, Advertising and Marketing at Ulster University, he was immediately appointed to the important role in May 2007, having been preceded in the post by his brother-in-law, Timothy Johnston.

He held that post until May 2016, when he was appointed Spad to the economy minister, Simon Hamilton – before losing his job with the collapse of devolution.

Mr Robinson said that he could not recall whether the post was advertised, did not remember whether he had filled in an application form but that he remembered the interview because it happened before he had even graduated and he was doing an exam on the same day.

The inquiry heard evidence which gave an insight into how the DUP handled one press query in December 2016 – at the height of the RHI scandal.

Mr Robinson was involved in an exchange about Jonathan Bell, who had just broken ranks with the party and accused DUP figures of acting improperly around RHI.

On December 17 2016, DUP press officer Clive McFarland sent an email to senior DUP figures including Mr Robinson, Simon Hamilton and Spad Richard Bullick.

In the email, he said: “Ciaran Barnes [a Sunday Life journalist] has been on asking for a response from this claim from Jonny [Bell] that he was offered a CBE in return for silence on the RHI stuff. Will be front page with some sort of ‘DUP=CBE’-type headline.

“He also said that if we could get someone to go on the record – even by a phone call – that they felt intimidated by Jonny, they would go with that. Probably have some sort of ‘Billy-boy [sic] Bell’ headline on the front page instead.”

Mr Robinson responded saying: “It’s a lie and an act of desperation. Call for [sic] it what it is. Time to put up or shut up.”

In the event, the Sunday Life on the following day ran a story from the DUP’s point of view, with the headline ‘DUP go four Bell’, saying that four unnamed DUP members had alleged “threatening and controlling behaviour” towards him, something which Mr Bell denied when he gave evidence to the inquiry.