RHI Inquiry: Powerful DUP Spad’s story undermined by new email

A new email has come to light which undermines the story of the DUP’s powerful chief executive, who has denied that he had any knowledge of RHI in the period when it was running out of control.

Timothy Johnston, who at the time was the senior Spad to the first minister, was alleged by fellow DUP Spad Timothy Cairns to have told him in June 2015 that cost controls would not be introduced on the RHI scheme and that he should work with Arlene Foster’s Spad on the issue.

Timothy Johnston giving evidence to the RHI Inquiry on Thursday

Timothy Johnston giving evidence to the RHI Inquiry on Thursday

Mr Johnston rejected that and told the inquiry that he had no interest in relation to RHI or role in cost controls.

But an email which Mr Cairns gave to the inquiry on Wednesday night shows that he was in contact with Mr Johnston about RHI. On August 17, Mr Cairns emailed him in relation to another renewable energy issue on which they were jointly working, the NIRO electricity subsidy.

Mr Cairns went on to say: “We also need to get a catch up on renewable heat. If we are to deviate from GB policy, it will require a ministerial direction [the nuclear option for a minister].”

Inquiry chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin said it seemed “a pretty clear suggestion that somebody somewhere was saying ‘don’t put [cost controls] in’.

Mr Johnston faced sustained questioning about the topic, with barrister Donal Lunny saying that it “seems to assume a degree of knowledge” about the issue, with the language being “cryptic” to the uninitiated. Mr Johnston said Mr Cairns may have assumed he had more knowledge than he had.

When asked if he read the email, Mr Johnston initially said that he “probably skimmed it”. Sir Patrick put it to him that “it’s not a long email ... so skimming it means you probably read it?”

Mr Johnston said: “Yes, I think if you’re pushing me – I can’t be absolutely 100% certain.”

Sir Patrick asked why Mr Johnston had not instantly phoned or gone down the corridor to ask “what on earth are you telling me about ‘deviation’ for? I haven’t said anything about this. You must have got the wrong person”.

Mr Johnston said: “I certainly ... have no sense that I did do that ... I have no sense that at the time I paid a lot of attention to it.”

Sir Patrick said the “probable” explanation was that Mr Cairns referred to RHI as he did because there had been an exchange with Mr Johnston on the issue such as the one where he is alleged to have said no to cost controls. Mr Johnston said that he had denied that. But Sir Patrick said: “On this evidence, that [Mr Cairns’ account] fits.”

Mr Johnston was asked “had you forgotten about that communication until you saw that email today?” He said: “Yes. Absolutely. And not only that, but I mean it doesn’t massively jog my memory ... I take that email to be ‘Tim, you’ve been away on your holidays, you’ve come back, you’ve a lot of other stuff on; we need to talk about RHI’.”

Dame Una O’Brien said: “But Mr Johnston, it doesn’t actually say that ... If Mr Cairns’s sentence said as you’ve described, I could get that. But it actually doesn’t say that, does it?

“On any common sense reading, it implies some degree of previous engagement on it – ‘if we are going to deviate’. There’s a gap between what you’re saying it seems to be saying and what it is actually saying.”

Mr Johnston said: “I can see that. All I can set out for you is as I both recall it and believe it to be the case that it wasn’t a case that I had ever suggested at any [time] let’s not have tariff controls, or let’s delay them ...”

Mr Lunny put it to him that – given that he now accepts he had forgotten about that exchange – there may have been other occasions where RHI was mentioned.

Mr Johnston said: “I can’t rule that out. I can’t rule that out. All I can say to you very definitively is that I’m absolutely clear – because it would stick in my memory – if I had given the guys to believe, or pushed the notion, or encouraged them down the route of saying ‘there’s not going to be cost controls’ I’m absolutely clear that wasn’t the case.”