Just weeks after Arlene Foster became First Minister, Jonathan Bell met with Peter Robinson who he says advised him to “proceed with the utmost caution” in relation to RHI because of Mrs Foster’s actions.
In written evidence to the RHI Inquiry which it published last night, Mr Bell set out two meetings with Mr Robinson but does not say whether the two men broke off contact about the issue before Mr Bell broke ranks with the DUP leadership.
Mr Bell had long been ultra-loyal to the Robinsons. He issued a warm statement about Iris Robinson after BBC Spotlight’s 2010 exposé and then within weeks Mr Robinson had co-opted him into the Assembly after Mrs Robinson was forced to resign. Mr Bell then employed at least one of the Robinsons’ family in his constituency office.
In his written statement, Mr Bell claimed that at a meeting with Peter Robinson in early February 2016 the former First Minister advised him “to proceed with the utmost caution as it appeared that Arlene Foster was issuing verbal orders to re-open a scheme at the same time as an email record was being made showing a contradictory instruction that Arlene Foster’s department wished the issue to be closed”.
He said that he did not discuss Mr Robinson’s advice with anyone but went to see Mrs Foster, who was joined in the room by her key Spad, Timothy Johnston. He said he informed the First Minister “that I would not issue a ministerial instruction and that the situation was untenable and the scheme must close. Arlene Foster asked for an additional two weeks and I sought out my permanent secretary...he agreed that DETI could proceed on that basis without a ministerial instruction.”
Mr Bell added: “I was surprised, given that I hadn’t spoken to anyone, that Timothy Johnston interjected during the conversation with Arlene Foster to state that he noted that I was crying on the shoulder of the former First Minister Peter Robinson earlier.”
Mr Bell said that the following month he had a subsequent meeting with the former DUP leader at what he described as Mr Robinson’s “private office in Saintfield”, with only Mr Robinson’s daughter Rebecca present. Mr Robinson has provided a written statement to the inquiry, but it has not yet been published.
At the time when he met Mr Robinson, Mr Bell alleged that Mrs Foster had “ordered” him to keep open the RHI scheme – which by that stage had cost controls but was vastly over budget. Mr Bell said that while on a trade trip to Canada in February 2016 he was informed by his Spad that “Arlene Foster wished for me to change my position of 5th of February relating to the closure of the RHI schemes. I informed him that I had no intention of changing my position.”
On returning to Belfast, Mr Bell’s Spad received a text message from Timothy Johnston, saying that she wanted to see him before he answered questions in the Assembly that day. Mr Bell said that he met Mrs Foster, along with several DUP Spads in her room in the First Minister’s office in Parliament Buildings and that “she ordered me to keep the scheme open, essentially saying that she was the first minister and by her authority I would keep the scheme open.
“I passionately argued that this was folly. I was closing the scheme... there was no rational argument I could see to keep it open. I told Arlene Foster that I was confused because her office was sending emails to DETI stating that she wanted the schemes to be closed (Andrew McCormick informed me verbally that she had done this). Now she was verbally ordering me to keep it open.
“She stated that an email had come from her HOCS [the Head of the Civil Service] and not from her which confused me because HOCS was her permanent secretary.”
He went on: “The outcome of the meeting was that Arlene Foster ordered that the scheme be kept open. My choice was to close it as soon as possible but her order was to keep it open for a further period. I was not in agreement with the outcome but had been ordered by the First Minister to keep it open...I followed the instructions of the First Minister.”
He said that he discussed the situation with Mr Robinson and requested a further meeting with Mrs Foster that day “as the order she had made was untenable”. He said that in that meeting Mrs Foster “changed her position and stated she agreed with my logic this needed to come to an end and stated she was now prepared to close within two weeks”.
Mr Bell also said that he had a discussion with DUP MP Ian Paisley about his decision to give an interview to Stephen Nolan about the issue.
Mr Bell was asked by the inquiry to set out details of how and why he had secretly recorded a conversation with senior civil servant Andrew McCormick in December 2016.
The former Strangford MLA said that he had made the recordings “for my personal record to have an accurate record” and “in the context where I had been informed that there had been attempts to expunge records”.
Dr McCormick has said that he found Mr Bell’s actions “profoundly disturbing” and said that the audio does not cover all that was said between them.
When asked why he deleted the original recordings and only gave the inquiry a copy, Mr Bell said that was because the recordings contained “highly sensitive information that had been given both to my legal team and the inquiry”.
He said that the transcript of the recording began 17 minutes into the recording “because I had started recording before entering the building”.