Jonathan Bell has admitted that he signed a “false” declaration in order to appoint a DUP colleague to be his £76,000-a-year Spad.
Appearing before the RHI Inquiry yesterday, Mr Bell faced forensic questioning about his evidence, with the former DUP minister frequently saying “I don’t know”, “I can’t be precise”, or “I don’t recall” in response to questions about key moments during which the RHI scheme ran out of control.
Mr Bell made a series of claims, including that his special adviser (Spad) had discussed “sexual misbehaviour” by two DUP ministers with him, that there was a DUP smear campaign against him and that his former special adviser Spad had sent a text message to Arlene Foster stating he would “fit his story to whatever the party narrative was to be”.
The inquiry has obtained the letter which Mr Bell signed to appoint Timothy Cairns as his Spad. Quizzed on its accuracy yesterday, Mr Bell admitted that he had signed a “false” declaration which hid the true position that others in the DUP chose his Spad and said it was “in contravention with [sic] the legal position”.
The situation is of particular significance because Mr Bell has presented himself as someone who in December 2016 blew the whistle on what he says went on with the RHI scheme out of high moral principle.
The manner in which Mr Bell’s Spad was appointed – and therefore to whom he may have felt he owed his job – is also highly relevant to the allegation that when Mr Cairns delayed cost controls on the out-of-control scheme he was in fact implementing the will of others in the DUP, rather than his minister.
Mr Bell said in the letter “I wish to appoint Timothy Cairns...I have consulted with a number of stakeholders and assessed a range of potential candidates as well as considered both the job description and the person specification.
“At the end of this process I have concluded that Timothy Cairns is by far the most qualified candidate available.”
His letter lavished praise on Mr Cairns – despite now saying he would not have been his first choice – and said Mr Cairns’ abilities meant he should be paid in the upper payband for Spads, which went up to £92,000. Mr Bell recommended a salary of £80,000 but in the end Mr Cairns was appointed on a salary of just over £76,000.
But yesterday Mr Bell said “it wasn’t a choice” and “I had to take the person that was appointed by the party”.
He said the Spads were chosen from a “limited pool” within the DUP, adding: “There were many other people that I would have chosen, had it been left to me to do it, and my understanding was that’s what originally occurred but...the DUP had taken an over-arching decision as a party that in future all special advisers would be appointed by the party.”
After reading from the letter, counsel to the inquiry David Scoffield QC put it to Mr Bell: “I just wonder how what you’ve said...can be said to be consistent with what you’ve described to the inquiry in your evidence?
“You’ve said essentially there were other people you would have preferred, other people who were better qualified, you’d no choice and – albeit you weren’t unhappy – you were essentially stuck with Mr Cairns, whereas at the time you’re telling the permanent secretary you’ve considered a range of candidates and Timothy Cairns is ‘by far the most qualified’ candidate available.
“Was that true?”
Mr Bell replied: “What happens is they give me a letter that was pre-written and said ‘if you have no objection and you’re accepting Timothy Cairns, could you please sign this please’. I didn’t write the letter or author it. But I did agree to sign it and accept them as my [Spad].”
Mr Scoffield asked: “Did you read it?”
Mr Bell said: “I saw it largely as a standard pro forma letter that had been given to me...the private office would draft the letter of appointment and the purpose of the letter was to appoint that person as your special adviser.”
Sir Patrick Coghlin interjected to say: “So you signed this letter, indicating as Mr Scoffield has said a completely different freedom of choice. Is that right?”
When Mr Bell asked for clarity on the question, Sir Patrick said: “That you had freedom of choice,” before reading from Mr Bell’s letter, which said “I have consulted with a number of stakeholders and assessed a range of potential candidates”.
Mr Bell said: “Well I hadn’t consulted a number of...”
Sir Patrick said: “You hadn’t done that?”
Mr Bell responded: “This was the pro forma letter that was handed to me to sign to allow the special adviser to be appointed.”
Sir Patrick said: “And you signed it.”
Mr Bell said: “And I signed it, and my party instructed me to do so.”
The chairman then said: “And that represented a false situation.”
Mr Bell said: “Yes, it did. I mean, looking at it I thought these were just standard letters of appointment.”
Sir Patrick said: “Well, you may well have thought that. But it does occur to me that perhaps a little integrity could creep into it somewhere.”
Later, Mr Bell said that “a lot of that [the letter] is true” but that he had agreed to the “party officers’ decision” as to how the process should operate “and signed on that basis”.
Mr Scoffield took Mr Bell to Stormont guidance document on the appointment of Spads which says that “ministers have personal responsibility to ensure that the selection is free from unlawful discrimination” and that “ministers must ensure that they consider a number of candidates”.
The QC asked Mr Bell whether the process he undertook complied with Stormont guidance for fairness in such appointments. Mr Bell, who said he was unaware of the guidance, replied: “No.”
He said that he understood the system was identical for every DUP minister, with the party choosing each Spad. Mr Bell said: “It’s clear from what you’re showing me that that was in contravention with [sic] the legal position. But I thought it was lawful at the time.”
Sir Patrick said that in relation to how Mr Bell said the DUP appointed its Spads “there is a very real concern here about a practice or procedure being, as it were, camouflaged”. Mr Bell said: “That’s right. That’s exactly right.”