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In Northern Ireland, an inquiry into a failed green energy scheme that toppled the Stormont Executive is uncovering lurid details about drunken ministers, overmighty special advisers (Spads) and internal party feuds. The province’s Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) lacked basic controls, offering subsidies that encouraged businesses to profit from burning fuel in biomass boilers and creating a ‘cash for ash’ scandal that cost the taxpayer around half a billion pounds.
The inquiry itself has now become an expensive multi-million epic, with over eighty days of hearings that have suggested secrecy, incompetence and cronyism at the highest levels of devolved government and in the civil service. Recently, evidence has centred on the DUP, providing a fascinating insight into how Northern Ireland’s biggest party – which props up the Conservative government through a confidence and supply arrangement – conducts its business behind closed doors.
It is not a particularly edifying picture.
DUP Spads are accused of deliberately delaying cost controls to prevent RHI from being abused. It is implied that their party leader, Arlene Foster, made misleading statements about how much she knew of its flaws and a former minister, who eventually acted as a ‘whistle-blower’ on the scheme, is alleged to have got riotously drunk on a business trip to promote Northern Ireland to potential investors.
Jonathan Bell succeeded Arlene Foster as economy minister at Stormont’s Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI), which was responsible for RHI. In December 2016, he gave a tearful interview to the BBC’s Nolan television programme, claiming that Mrs Foster was directly responsible for postponing the closure of the scheme, with the result that there was a late spike in applications which wasted many more millions of taxpayers’ money.
Over the past week, the inquiry has focused closely on Bell’s involvement with RHI and his credibility as a witness.
Mr Bell is a professed evangelical christian who sometimes practises his faith with a theatrical flourish. Before his interview with Stephen Nolan, the former minister got down on his knees on camera to pray for strength to issue his revelations. And, at an important meeting at Stormont, he was accompanied by a colourful associate who told a senior civil servant that he’d received a ‘prophecy’ confirming Mr Bell’s version of events would be vindicated.
His former Spad at DETI, Timothy Cairns, has dented Bell’s evangelical image during the hearing, by portraying a foul-mouthed, domineering bully, with an explosive temper. He alleges that, during a trade mission to New York, Mr Bell got so drunk that he was unable to play a useful role at a business meeting the next morning.
The night before, the minister had supposedly urged colleagues at dinner to get wine glasses – though they weren’t drinking – so that he could consume a bottle less conspicuously. He was subsequently ejected from a bar after twice falling asleep and had to be helped back to his hotel, while he sang ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ by the 90s band, Deep Blue Something, at loud volume.
Mr Cairns also alleges that the minister was so paranoid that senior members of the DUP were out to get him, that he compiled a dossier on their private lives which he claimed could “end several people’s careers”.
For his part, Mr Bell says that it was the Spad who inappropriately discussed alleged “sexual misbehaviour” by two DUP ministers with him and engaged in abusive exchanges. During a heated row, he claims that Cairns shouted at him, “now you’re going to listen to me big balls.” The permanent secretary at DETI, who witnessed this altercation, would only confirm that the language used was “terse, pointed… right at the borderline of normal conversation, if not a bit over it.”
Irrespective of who said what to whom, the impression of the DUP emerging from the inquiry is that it is an exceptionally centralised organisation, under the influence of a handful of overly powerful Spads. Questioned about some of the internal decision-making around RHI, Cairns pointed to a “triumvirate” that was effectively running the party, consisting of two particularly prominent advisors and the party leader.
In spite of the DUP’s fundamentalist christian roots, the party has developed a spivvish reputation for venality. Its North Antrim MP, Ian Paisley junior, is currently suspended from parliament for failing to declare family holidays paid for by the Sri Lankan government. Former leader, Peter Robinson, was well known for close links with property tycoons that led critics to brand the party the ‘Developers Unionist Party’.
Many of the practices uncovered by the RHI inquiry suggest secrecy and cronyism was endemic when the DUP and Sinn Fein ran devolved government in Northern Ireland. Arlene Foster’s former adviser, Andrew Crawford, is accused of passing confidential papers about the heating scheme to a member of his family, who is an RHI claimant. Meanwhile, civil servants briefed businesses ahead of measures to bring costs under control, prompting another surge in applications.
The head of the civil service in Northern Ireland, David Sterling, revealed earlier in proceedings that meetings between ministers and senior officials were often not recorded, because the DUP and Sinn Fein were “sensitive to criticism.” Behind some of the more entertaining detail, the evidence reveals a highly dysfunctional administration, driven by a culture of maximising public spending and then dividing up the cash as the parties saw fit.