The RHI Inquiry has uncovered a details of how Mairitn Ó Muilleoir was in constant contact with unelected senior republican figures about a key decision in the period where Stormont was falling apart at the start of 2017.
As Finance Minister, Mr Ó Muilleoir needed to sign off on the business case for DUP minister Simon Hamilton’s proposed solution to the huge RHI overspend — a retrospective cut in subsidies.
Mr Hamilton accused the finance minister of politicking by stalling on that decision even when his own officials were recommending that he approve it.
Yesterday the inquiry was told of multiple communications, which the inquiry has compelled from Sinn Féin under its sweeping powers of compulsion, which indicate that even as the most senior Executive minister outside of Stormont Castle Mr Ó Muilleoir reported to a series of publicly unseen republicans – one of whom, Padraic Wilson, has separately been reported to be one of the most senior members of the IRA.
The inquiry was told that on 18 December, three days after Jonathan Bell’s dramatic TV interview, Mr Ó Muilleoir met with Mr Hamilton in Belfast City Hall to discuss RHI – but no minutes were taken of the ministerial meeting.
Three days later, Mr Ó Muilleoir emailed senior republican figure Padraic Wilson to provide a detailed summary of the meeting.
Mr Wilson, who was caught in possession of a bomb, is a former ‘officer commanding’ of the IRA prisoners in the Maze Prison who continued to be given crucial roles by the IRA after his release from jail.
Three years ago a security assessment for the government said that the IRA Army Council remains intact and that IRA members believe that it controls Sinn Féin.
He told Mr Wilson about Mr Hamilton’s plans, “under which there would be costs to London and none to Executive”.
Mr Ó Muilleoir then said: “It’s up to [Mr Hamilton’s department] to come up with a solution ... that gives us a certain distance from the DUP attempts to say we were all in this together”.
Sir Patrick Coghlin said: “What you would like to see here, given the fact that there is a clear threat to public funds, is a degree of positive cooperation. What you get is two alley cats, if you like, fighting and walking around each other – ‘this gives us a certain distance from the DUP to say we’re all in this together’.
“Don’t for goodness sake say we’re cooperating or together...if the ordinary member of the public whose tax money is being lost here stood back and looked at this and did so with the hope that there was cooperation to try to solve his loss of money, I doubt if he would have any great confidence in what was going on.”
Mr Ó Muilleoir went on to say that the DUP and Sinn Fein were “drawing metaphorical daggers” at that point with relations disintegrating as Stormont moved towards collapse.
By 4 January 2017 Mr Ó Muilleoir was emailing other Sinn Féin figures including Ted Howell, one of Gerry Adams’ closest confidantes for decades and a former go-between representing the IRA.
When asked who Mr Howell was, Mr Ó Muilleoir described him as “the former chair and chair of every negotiation Sinn Fein’s been involved in around these institutions and political processes since 1997” and a member of Sinn Féin’s ard chomhairle who was “brought back from retirement at the request of Martin McGuinness to chair a crisis committee to deal with the crisis” over RHI.
Within two days of his email to Mr Howell, Mr Ó Muilleoir wrote a letter to Mr Hamilton criticising his approach and released it publicly. The inquiry has found that a draft of the letter was in circulation among the group of senior republicans.
On 16 January, Mr Ó Muilleoir wrote to senior republicans, including Mr Howell, to say “I will shortly sign off a submission from officials agreeing that the interim solution of Simon Hamilton stacks up”.
But the following day, Mr Ó Muilleoir wrote to say he was “taken by” the suggestion of Sinn Féin MLA Raymond McCartney to “strip apart” Mr Hamilton’s proposal.
He then received a text message from Mr Howell two days later to tell him that “the hole in our case is ‘what is the SF cure?’” if it rejected Mr Hamilton’s plan.
Mr Ó Muilleoir replied in detail to Mr Howell setting out his preferred approach.
Mr Ó Muilleoir then emailed Mr Howell on 24 January to tell him “there is now no further reason for me to delay holding up [sic] this business plan... would you be content if I were to sign off the business plan on Wednesday afternoon?”
Mr Lunny put it to him: “So you’re essentially asking Ted Howell is he content that you do what all of those officials by that point are recommending that you do - so Emer Morelli, Mike Brennan and the permanent secretary; but you’re still asking Ted Howell for permission.”
Mr Ó Muilleoir insisted that he was not in that email requesting permission and was simply informing him of what he would be doing and was acting as “a courtesy...giving him his place”.