RHI Inquiry: ‘Superficial’ Jonathan Bell ‘liked the glamour’ of office without the graft

Former DUP minister Jonathan Bell
Former DUP minister Jonathan Bell

Jonathan Bell was a minister who was viewed by party colleagues as being “superficial” and who did not have the temperament necessary to hold ministerial office, Timothy Johnston told the RHI Inquiry.

Mr Johnston said that he and others had advised the then DUP leader Peter Robinson that Mr Bell – who employed at least one of Mr Robinson’s family in his constituency office – should not even have been made a junior minister.

But Mr Johnston said that Mr Bell was “very loyal to Mr Robinson” and Mr Robinson was “very mindful” of the need for loyalty from his ministers at that time.

The senior DUP Spad said that “his loyalty to Mr Robinson was rewarded”.

He later said: “Jonathan was of the view there was one person he saw as ‘the man’ and that was the first minister”.

Mr Johnston also said he did not think Mr Bell was capable of heading the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment or capable of “any senior role”.

He insisted that he took no pleasure in criticising Mr Bell, who he described as a friend during their time together in the party.

Mr Bell broke ranks with the DUP in December 2016 when in a televised interview with Stephen Nolan he made huge allegations against the party, including the claim that Mr Johnston had a role in delaying cost controls on the RHI scheme, something Mr Johnston said did not happen.

Yesterday he said: “It wasn’t that he wasn’t capable, but the effort wasn’t always put in. There was a glamour to being junior minister.

“I feel a little uncomfortable. I feel torn in the sense of having to say this in public.

“A lot of people thought he was over-promoted.”

Mr Johnston, who said he had witnessed Mr Bell’s “temper tantrums”, also said he does not believe “we would be where we are today” if Mr Bell had not been given the job at DETI.

Mr Johnston insisted he never considered himself to be senior to DUP ministers but they came to him for advice on everything from constituency business to “personal problems”.

He said there was “a media narrative that has grown up” about him, but said he never tried to “force” his advice on issues.

In written evidence, Mr Robinson said that Mr Bell had come to him in early 2016 and raised a number of matters which had led him to believe that he was being “marginalised and alienated”

Mr Robinson said that he believed Mr Bell had a “deteriorating relationship with the party” in that period and he suggested he should have a “clear-the-air meeting” with Mrs Foster.

He had a second meeting with Mr Bell in his Saintfield office in late March 2016 where he said Mr Bell had expressed the view that “a special adviser or special advisers must have had a pecuniary interest in the scheme being kept open”.