Attempt to “protect Foster” as RHI forced to wind down

Posted By: June 30, 2018

Connla Young. Irish News. Belfast.Friday, June 29, 2018

THE RHI inquiry has been told there was an attempt to protect Arlene Foster as the failed scheme was being closed down.

The claim was made yesterday as senior civil servant Chris Stewart was giving evidence.

He was asked why references to the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister were taken out of government papers about the closure of the scheme.

Mr. Stewart said this had been done at the request of DUP special adviser Timothy Cairns but without the knowledge or consent of his then minister Department of Enterprise and Trade minister (Deti) Jonathan Bell.

Mr. Bell succeeded Mrs. Foster as enterprise minister in May 2015 – a role she had held since 2008.

She then headed the Department of Finance and Personnel before becoming the first minister in January 2016.

Mr. Stewart said he assumed that Mr. Bell had agreed to the changes and the fact he hadn’t only emerged after a meeting in February 2016.

The inquiry heard that Mr. Bell was angered when he found out that the references to the First Minister’s office had been removed and later confronted his special adviser.

Mr. Stewart said he believed there was a strategy to make Mr. Bell responsible for the controversial decision.

“There was a desire for the difficult and potentially controversial decisions on this matter to be presented as having been made solely by Minister Bell, without any involvement in the decision making from anywhere else,” he said.

“I think there was a strategy emerging for Jonathan Bell to be front and center on the decision making on RHI.”

Mr. Stewart also told the inquiry that the DUP resisted the introduction of RHI cost controls because they didn’t want to “hobble” a scheme they viewed as good.

He said that during his career he had never experienced “resistance” like it.