Former DUP adviser remained in RHI discussions despite applying, inquiry hears

Arlene Foster’s former DUP special adviser failed to step away from discussions about a botched energy scheme despite having applied for it, an inquiry has heard.

Stephen Brimstone installed a biomass boiler at a shed beside his home and applied for the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) in 2015.

He then failed to step away from high level discussions or ask not to be sent emails about the scheme as it became clear costs were spiralling.

When asked to explain, Mr Brimstone said he was trying to be helpful to other DUP special advisers.

The RHI Inquiry is probing how Northern Ireland’s RHI scheme ended up causing the crisis which contributed to the collapse of Stormont.

There have been allegations the scheme’s over generous fuel subsidies led to people heating empty sheds for financial gain before cost control measures were introduced.

The inquiry heard on Wednesday that Mr Brimstone’s average boiler usage averaged at just four hours a day.

Mr Brimstone had been a DUP special adviser in various departments since 2008.

When Mrs Foster became First Minister in January 2016, she asked Mr Brimstone to become one of her advisers.

He told the inquiry he told her verbally then he had applied to the RHI scheme.

Mr Brimstone said there had been discussion about the scheme and he felt he should tell her he had applied.

“She just thanked me for telling her… and that was the end of the matter,” he told the inquiry.

Mr Brimstone told the inquiry Mrs Foster’s most senior adviser Timothy Johnston also knew he had applied, and had not told him to stay out of discussions about RHI.

The inquiry heard that despite knowing the potential conflict of interest, Mr Brimstone did not step away from discussions or ask to not receive emails about it.

Inquiry chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin said not stepping back raises a question how genuine his declaration to Mrs Foster had been.

“You tell the First Minister you have an interest and having done that, you then continue to involved, and that can play back on the genuineness of your declaration, you are just doing it for form… you may shake your head and so on, but that is the sort of perspective that someone might adopt,” Sir Patrick said.

Mr Brimstone responded: “I appreciate that chair, I think that’s why I didn’t want to equivocate yesterday when it first came up, when I said I should have stepped back from every instance that happened, and yes every instance that happened after another, makes the thing even worse.”

He agreed with Sir Patrick the “perception of it couldn’t be worse”.

Panel member Dr Keith MacLean commented: “It sounds like it goes beyond your judgement. You have told Mrs Foster, you have told Mr Johnston and none of the three of you have come to a conclusion or had a discussion about the need to do something formally and for you to withdraw.”

Mr Brimstone told the inquiry he should have stepped away from any discussion about RHI.

When asked to explain why he did not, Mr Brimstone responded: “I was trying to be helpful.”

When asked did he think it was a conflict of interest at the time, Mr Brimstone said: “I don’t believe I did.”

Invited to explain further, he told the inquiry: “I have asked myself that question so many times.”

“I should have stepped back completely,” he added.

The inquiry also heard two complaints were raised about Mr Brimstone’s RHI installation.

Both were investigated and on each occasion the government regulator for gas and electricity markets (Ofgem) found found no compliance issues.

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