The most senior civil servant in Máirtín Ó Muilleoir’s Stormont department believed that the then finance minister may have been “acting under instruction” in a period where it is now clear that the minister was in constant contact with senior republicans.
Evidence published by the inquiry includes emails and text messages showing Mr Ó Muilleoir in constant contact with veteran republicans outside Stormont about whether he should sign off on a DUP plan to slash the cost to taxpayers of the RHI overspend.
Among those he was contacting were Padraic Wilson and Martin Lynch, reported to have been among the most senior IRA members in Belfast, and Ted Howell, a long-standing confidante of Gerry Adams who has acted as a go-between on behalf of the IRA.
On January 21 2017, in the dying days of the Assembly and amid concern that Mr Ó Muilleoir’s delay in signing off on the business case for the RHI changes could scupper the plan, David Sterling sent a text message to fellow permanent secretary Andrew McCormick.
Mr Sterling, who was the most senior official in the Department of Finance, said of his minister: “I can’t say whether the ‘will’ is there and wonder whether he knows himself. He may be acting under instruction.”
When asked yesterday what he had meant by that phrase, Mr Sterling played down its significance, saying that “working for ministers from Sinn Fein, we would have recognised that there would have been significant issues that would have been discussed at party level”, but “I don’t think there’s anything particularly unusual about that – all political parties will seek to have some influence at the centre over actions taken by individual ministers”.
Mr Sterling said that by then he was “quite seriously concerned” about the delays in approving the proposed solution, although he calculated that in the end Mr Ó Muilleoir would ultimately sign off on it.
Mr Ó Muilleoir had revoked the delegated authority which normally would have allowed civil servants to be in charge of the process, taking personal responsibility for himself – although that now seems to have been in conjunction with other figures unseen by civil servants.
Mr Sterling said that the minister was “perfectly entitled” to take personal control of the issue due to its significance.