Renewables scheme was part of DUP ‘great drive to centralise power’, says CEO

DUP leader Arlene Foster (right) and Deputy DUP leader Nigel Dodds (left)  Niall Carson/PA Wire
DUP leader Arlene Foster (right) and Deputy DUP leader Nigel Dodds (left) Niall Carson/PA Wire

The RHI inquiry has heard there was a “great drive to centralise power” within the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in its appointment of special advisers within the Northern Ireland Assembly.

The DUP’s chief executive Timothy Johnston accepted there was an “element of centralisation” in the appointment process.

In his evidence on Friday to the public inquiry, Mr Johnston, the DUP’s most senior official, admitted that the party process in appointing special advisers was not transparent and didn’t “comply with the letter and the spirit” of the legislation that was passed in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Mr Johnston served as a DUP special adviser from May 2007 until January 2017.

The RHI inquiry is investigating how costs for Northern Ireland’s Renewable Heat Incentive scheme spiralled. The RHI scheme was aimed at encouraging the use of green energy.

The RHI inquiry is also looking into allegations that some DUP special advisers attempted to delay the introduction of cost control measures in 2015.

Sir Patrick Coghlin, chairman of the RHI inquiry, said that the process in how the DUP appointed its special advisers and the code which the Assembly passed, were “two utterly divorced structures”.

He said it could not be a “satisfactory situation from a democratic point of view” if the codes were being ignored.

Mr Johnston also said there was a “disparity” in the process from department to department and that it was not done in a “consistent way”.

Mr Johnston also said he did not think former DUP minister Jonathan Bell was capable of heading the Department of Enterprise or capable of “any senior role”.

“I was not in favour of him being junior minister,” he added.

“It wasn’t that he wasn’t capable but the effort wasn’t always put in. There was a glamour to being junior minister.

“I feel a little uncomfortable. I feel torn in the sense of having to say this in public.

“A lot of people thought he was over-promoted.”

He told the inquiry that he advised former first minister Peter Robinson not to appoint Mr Bell as enterprise minister.

He added that Mr Bell was “very loyal” to Mr Robinson and that he was rewarded for this.

“Mr Robinson is his own man and makes his own decisions,” Mr Johnston added.

Mr Johnston also said he does not believe “we would be where we are today” if Mr Bell had not been given the job at DETI.

Mr Johnston also revealed that it took ten days for Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness to agree the joint letter about Brexit that was then sent to the UK prime minister in 2016.

He was referring to how parts of the Northern Ireland political system worked adding that he could say “a lot of things that could deflate people”.

“We didn’t want the public to see the elements of the sausage machine because it wasn’t always pretty,” he said.