Emails which were leaked to the News Letter at the height of the RHI scandal had been forwarded to Arlene Foster’s former special advisor Andrew Crawford about six weeks earlier, it has emerged.
Print-outs of the emails – which for a time took the focus off the DUP, but showing that some civil servants had been openly briefing the industry about looming cost controls ahead of a spike in RHI applications – were anonymously posted to this newspaper and to the BBC in February 2017.
The correspondence showed that in July 2015 poultry farmer Tom Forgrave was lobbying the Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) to ask Stormont for a ‘grace period’ to allow those already in the process of installing boilers to get them at the most lucrative tariff, arguing that they had taken on huge bank loans on that basis.
The UFU agreed to argue for a delay in changing the scheme and held a meeting at Stormont where civil servants handed the UFU a document which highlighted the cost of wood pellets – glaringly showing that the level of the uncapped subsidy was above the cost of fuel.
But yesterday it was revealed that the emails had been sent to Dr Crawford on January 3 2017 by Wesley Aston, the UFU’s chief executive.
The DUP Spad forwarded them to John Robinson, then a fellow Spad and now the DUP’s chief spin doctor, and Mrs Foster’s then Spad Richard Bullick, with the comment: “Officials were briefing everyone related to the scheme about the proposed changes well in advance of any changes. I asked Wesley to send this through as proof that briefings and meetings were taking place. He is content for us to use this info.”
Mr Aston yesterday insisted to the RHI Inquiry that the UFU’s relationship with Dr Crawford was no different to that which it had with other Spads, even though he was a former UFU colleague.
Mr Aston told the inquiry that he had met Dr Crawford and had a “brief conversation” and he sent the emails “just on the basis of [it being] purely factual information, not knowing what was going to be subsequently done with those”.
He said that Dr Crawford gave him no indication of how he was going to use the documentation and Mr Aston said he was not suspicious of what was going on even when the emails led to this newspaper asking awkward questions of the UFU.
Inquiry barrister Donal Lunny put it to Mr Aston that there was evidence of Dr Crawford providing information to the UFU which gave it an advantage at earlier points and now it seemed that the UFU was helping him and the DUP. Mr Aston said it was “purely factual” and he would have done the same for any other Spad. But, when pressed if he had similar exchanges with any other Spad, Mr Aston said he had not done so on such a serious issue.
Mr Lunny asked him whether he could see that with so much focus on the DUP, the documents he was providing “might be used to shift some of the focus on to the officials”.
Mr Aston repeated that it was “purely factual”. When pressed on the issue again, he said he was surprised Dr Crawford could not access the emails within Stormont.
Mr Lunny said that “emails of this type were ultimately leaked to a number of journalists”.
After this newspaper asked the UFU questions about its role in lobbying to keep the uncapped scheme open, Mr Aston forwarded the union’s responses to Dr Crawford – something he said was “a courtesy” because one of the questions related to Dr Crawford.
It was put to Mr Aston that the UFU had not answered a question as to whether it regretted pressing for a delay in cost controls. When pressed several times to answer the question, Mr Aston said he regretted “the outcome from that delay” but it wasn’t solely responsible for that.
Mr Lunny asked if he had asked Dr Crawford whether it was him who had leaked the emails “because they are at least some of the emails that were forwarded to him on January 3”. Mr Aston said: “No, I didn’t at that stage.”
Mr Lunny asked: “Would that not be a natural thing to ask – these are the emails that we sent you six weeks ago; did you leak them to the News Letter?”
Mr Aston said: “It may have been obvious now, but at the time, no.”