Ex-minister branded a ‘liar’ by former adviser over green energy scheme claim
The DUP’s director of communications has branded a former minister a “liar” over claims that he tried to delay cost controls for a botched green energy scheme.
John Robinson said the claims by Jonathan Bell led to his family being “undeservedly catapulted” into the media spotlight.
In January 2017, Mr Bell, a former enterprise minister in the Northern Ireland Executive, made a statement to the Assembly over the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), a scheme aimed at encouraging the use of green energy.
It hit the headlines in late 2016 after it emerged that costs of running the scheme had spiralled due to over-generous subsidies.
The RHI Inquiry has been tasked with probing what went wrong.
Mr Bell said during his January 2017 speech to the Assembly that that senior DUP staff had sought to block curbs to the RHI scheme because of “extensive interests in the poultry industry”, and named Mr Robinson and special adviser Timothy Johnston.
The DUP at that time described Mr Bell’s claims as “outrageous, untrue and unfounded”.
In written evidence to the inquiry, Mr Robinson said he regretted not declaring earlier that his father-in-law was a recipient of the RHI scheme, but he insisted he had “no financial interest” in his relative’s business, adding: “At no time was my judgment conflicted.”
In his witness statement to the inquiry, the father-in-law, Hugh Rutledge, said Mr Robinson “had no role” in his RHI application.
Mr Rutledge told the inquiry Mr Robinson had nothing to do with the RHI scheme in 2015 or 2016 when there were discussions over introducing cost control measures and later closing the scheme.
Asked why Mr Bell would name him, Mr Robinson replied: “Only he can answer that question.”
“It was incredibly hurtful for me on a personal level, my family were catapulted into a media spotlight which they didn’t deserve,” he told the inquiry.
“They are hard-working, honest people. It impinged on not only my integrity but the integrity of my family. And, as we will come on to, my wife’s family. You feel a sense of guilt for that.
“Jonathan told lies, he knows he told lies.”
Mr Robinson was then special adviser to DUP economy minister Simon Hamilton, at the department which was then running the RHI scheme.
He said Mr Bell’s allegation led to him being told some within the DUP thought he should resign.
He told the inquiry DUP leader Arlene Foster and special adviser Timothy Johnston spoke to him during the same phone call about the matter.
Mr Robinson said he felt that to resign would lend weight to allegations being reported about him, and insisted: “I had done nothing wrong – I was accused on the basis of a lie.”
Mr Robinson added that the phone call was not “hostile”.
He said he later spoke to Mr Hamilton who assured him he had confidence in him.
Mr Robinson said he stepped away from involvement with the RHI scheme in the department.
Meanwhile, outside of the inquiry proceedings, Sinn Fein’s deputy leader Michelle O’Neill responded to a claim by Arlene Foster that the late deputy first minister Martin McGuinness was aware of a whistleblower warning about the RHI scheme.
Mrs Foster told the inquiry on Tuesday that she made the Sinn Fein veteran aware of the whistleblower allegations when she received them in January 2016.
Reading out a statement in the Great Hall of Parliament Buildings on Wednesday, Mrs O’Neill said: “Martin McGuinness set the benchmark for good government and the fair and equal treatment of all citizens. He led by example and any attack on his integrity is spurious, is disgraceful and it will be robustly challenged by our party.
“The comments that were made before the RHI public inquiry that Martin McGuinness had prior knowledge of the whistleblower will be examined by the inquiry. However, Sinn Fein is confident that our position and the position of Martin McGuinness will be fully vindicated. Martin McGuinness is no longer here to defend himself.
“I can also tell you that this allegation is subject to an ongoing and separate legal action.”
It is understood the action relates to comments made by a different DUP member as to another Sinn Fein figure’s alleged knowledge of whistleblower claims.