Furious DUP rows over RHI payouts revealed

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In nasty exchanges, former DUP first minister Arlene Foster ordered a party colleague to keep open a Stormont ‘free money’ energy scheme despite his concerns over the spiralling cost, an inquiry has heard.

The unlimited ‘cash for ash’ grants for those burning biomass fuel -- officially, the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) -- caused a political row over corruption within the Six-County Stormont administration. It culminated in the resignation of the late Sinn Fein deputy first minister Martin McGuinness in January 2017 and the collapse of powersharing.

Jonathan Bell (pictured), who was the DUP Department of Enterprise Trade and Investment from May 2015-May 2016, oversaw the scheme before applications skyrocketed. A public inquiry into corruption in the 500 million pound bonanza, which resumed after the summer, heard of the tussles that took place within the Stormont administration over whether to close it as applications piled in.

The inquiry heard that the DUP leader Arlene Foster “overruled” a decision by Mr Bell to close the scheme. Mrs Foster “created a paper trail” calling for RHI to be closed, Bell said, but verbally, her and the DUP’s special advisers were pushing for it to be kept open.

Bell and others have alleged that a number of Stormont politicians and civil servants sought to keep the scheme open to allow last-minute applications by family members, party insiders and special interests. The former Minister pointed out that senior DUP figures had “interests in the chicken industry”, which particularly benefited from the scheme.

According to Mr Bell’s evidence, the situation within the DUP came to a head during a tense meeting between Mrs Foster and Mr Bell on February 9th 2017.

“There was tension, the atmosphere was abusive, Arlene was very abrupt,” Mr Bell told the inquiry. “I said ‘minister, I have made the decision (to close the scheme), we had announced the decision and really are you going to place me in a position ... where in my view I am effectively asking a civil servant to do something that is wrong, and order them to do it’. I wasn’t prepared to do it.

“I did argue hard not to do it, but she ordered me to do it.

“She said ‘look, I am the first minister, you will follow my order. I am instructing you and reversing your decision’.

“I felt bullied into taking the decision because I was taking the decision against my rational judgment.”

Mr Bell said Mrs Foster asked for a two-week extension to the scheme, which he agreed to. Mrs Foster and DUP advisers have told the inquiry they believe Mr Bell had opposed the two-week extension to the closure of the scheme because it made him look foolish.

Mr Bell completed his two days of evidence this week by telling the panel he sacrificed his political career to stop the financial exploitation of RHI. “My only motivation was those hundreds of millions of pounds to get back into the health service and our education system,” he said. “For that, I knew I would have sacrificed my political career.”

His testimony notably included claims about the dysfunctional nature of the DUP, who he said had tried to orchestrate smears against him. The inquiry heard of derogatory exchanges between Bell, party officials and civil servants.

Mr Bell said the DUP “fitted” him up and the Executive Office -- a joint office of Arlene Foster and Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness -- “briefed against him”. He said an Executive Office official described him as a “monster who had to be put to sleep”, and that well-known Sky News correspondent David Blevins had even advised the DUP how they could attack him on the basis of his Christian faith.

His own party also offered a newspaper an exclusive story if they used the headline “Bully-boy Bell”, the former Minister said. “I fear I have been the victim of a massive smear campaign, and I fear this is part of the smear campaign.”

The inquiry heard allegations in the other direction, that the former Minister tried to “break the finger” of his political advisor and “swung a punch”, as tensions mounted over the scheme within the DUP. A statement by a civil servant accused the former Minister, while on a trade mission to the US, of having a “limited capacity to contribute effectively” and appearing “tired” after “quite a late night”.

In turn, Mr Bell alleged that another civil servant had loudly accused a DUP official of keeping the cash-for-ash scheme open “for the benefit of your family”.

In another cryptic comment, Mr Bell said he had been told of “sexual misbehaviour of two DUP ministers”. He added that the detail was “explicit”, before he was stopped by the inquiry chair, Patrick Coghlin.

There was embarrassment for Sinn Fein, too, as it was confirmed that they were involved in keeping the cash-for-ash scheme open after Bell wanted it shut down. The decision to keep it open for a further two weeks was agreed at a meeting between the late Martin McGuinness and Arlene Foster, according to minutes of a meeting between the two, also on February 9, 2016.

Mr McGuinness’s special adviser Aidan McAteer then sought a “soft landing” for RHI applications and privately asked a DUP official to “keep any discussion... out of the Executive”.

The inquiry continues next week.

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