Arlene Foster’s claims over ex-adviser questioned at RHI probe

The chair of the RHI inquiry has questioned the meaning of Arlene Foster’s claim to be “accountable but not responsible” for the actions of her former ministerial adviser.

Sir Patrick Coghlin said he was not clear what the DUP leader was saying in regard to her oversight of Dr Andrew Crawford.

Dr Crawford, who was Mrs Foster’s ministerial adviser when she had responsibility for the RHI scheme in Stormont’s economy department, has accepted that some of his actions were not appropriate – including the forwarding of confidential material about planned cost controls to a relative.

Renewable Heat Incentive inquiry
Renewable Heat Incentive inquiry

But he has insisted he was not involved in any attempt to thwart efforts to clamp down on the spiralling cost of the botched scheme.

Mrs Foster, in her evidence to the inquiry earlier this year, had rejected the suggestion that she would bear some responsibility if the inquiry ultimately makes adverse findings against her ex-adviser.

On Thursday, a lawyer representing DUP witnesses to the inquiry, including Mrs Foster and Dr Crawford, made a final submission to the panel chaired by Sir Patrick.

Julie Ellison discussed leadership roles held by Stormont ministers and insisted while they could set policy directions, they could not be across every detail within their department or give “managerial leadership”.

Sir Patrick later raised Mrs Foster’s comments in respect of Dr Crawford.

“She has a saying that she is accountable but not responsible,” he said.

“I for myself am not entirely clear as to what that may mean.”

Renewable Heat Incentive inquiry
Renewable Heat Incentive inquiry

Earlier, Ms Ellison said the party had acknowledged its mistakes in the handling of the RHI and was determined to learn the lessons.

“Despite it being both difficult and painful at times to have some of its dealings laid bare, the party has welcomed the inquiry as a means of establishing the truth about what happened and it is hoped that the ensuing findings of the inquiry will allow for lessons to be learned at every level of government, and the DUP is certainly committed to learning those lessons,” she said.

The barrister insisted not all blame could be laid at the door of the DUP, claiming that Stormont officials had failed to keep Mrs Foster properly informed.

“Mrs Foster has expressed her profound regret over the Renewable Heat Incentive crisis and she has apologised for the mistakes that were made,” said the lawyer.

“It will be for the inquiry to determine what she and her special adviser knew or ought to have known about the RHI scheme during the inception, launch and operation of the scheme and where responsibility for individual mistakes therefore lie.

“However, it is submitted there are a number of key points at which, regrettably, the information presented to the minister was not presented in a clear and straightforward manner or where it was not raised as an issue for ministerial consideration at all.”

Ms Ellison also addressed claims made at the inquiry that former DUP special adviser and current party chief executive Timothy Johnston had been central to a bid to delay cost controls in the summer of 2015.

“It is the clear evidence of Mr Johnson that he had neither knowledge of nor interest in the Renewable Heat Incentive in June 2015 such that he could have made any such comment or direction,” she said.

A striking issue that has emerged during the inquiry was the lack of record keeping of ministerial and departmental meetings at Stormont.

Ms Ellison rejected any suggestion this was done at the direction of the DUP. She said it was rather indicative of a “lapse of good practice” within the civil service.

The inquiry has also heard evidence that the rules for appointing special advisers were not followed by both the DUP and Sinn Fein when in power.

Ms Ellison said the DUP acknowledged that the code should have been “adhered to more closely”.

She said there was a need for a more transparent method of appointing advisers going forward.

A whistleblower, Janette O’Hagan – who contacted Mrs Foster to flag concerns about the RHI in 2013, subsequently complained about her treatment by the DUP, accusing the party of making her out to be a liar.

Ms Ellison told the inquiry that Mrs O’Hagan was deserving of an apology.

“Mrs O’Hagan should not have been treated in the way she was,” she said.