Latest: I’m accountable but not responsible for my former spad, Foster tells RHI inquiry

Update - 7.47pm: Arlene Foster has said she is accountable for her former special adviser, but not responsible for him.

The appointment and actions of DUP special advisers (spads) came under scrutiny on Tuesday at an inquiry into a botched green energy scheme.

The former first minister for Northern Ireland made the distinction when asked about her former spad Dr Andrew Crawford.

Mrs Foster claimed while giving evidence to the RHI inquiry that Dr Crawford never raised with her allegations that the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme was being abused, or the potential for a spike in applications.

Dr Andrew Crawford

She told the inquiry she now believes both of those issues should have been brought to her attention when she was Stormont’s finance minister in 2015.

The inquiry also heard evidence Dr Crawford sent confidential government documents to family members who were RHI claimants.

Counsel to the inquiry David Scoffield asked Mrs Foster that if the panel finds Dr Crawford breached standards, to what degree is she responsible for his actions as his former minister.

Mrs Foster responded by telling the inquiry that she was accountable for Mr Crawford’s behaviour, as she was for other officials in the departments she had served in.

If he had committed a criminal offence as a spad, I don't see how the panel would be asking me to be responsible for that

But she insisted that she is accountable, but not responsible.

“If he had committed a criminal offence as a spad, I don’t see how the panel would be asking me to be responsible for that,” she said.

“I’m accountable but I’m not responsible.”

Mrs Foster also defended her party’s spads after the inquiry previously heard evidence from former enterprise minister Jonathan Bell about his difficult working relationship with them.

Mr Bell claimed the DUP “camouflaged” how they were appointed.

Mrs Foster said the DUP is no different to other parties in how it appoints its spads.

“All of the special advisers that the DUP appointed were people who had third-level education, and who had an ability to work within the system,” she told the inquiry.

“I am not sure that that can be said about every other special adviser.”

Earlier: Ex-minister Bell contributed to collapse of Stormont, Foster tells RHI inquiry

A former Stormont minister who spoke out about a botched green energy scheme contributed to the collapse of the powersharing institutions, Arlene Foster has claimed.

Northern Ireland’s former first minister also told a public inquiry into the scheme that she regrets she did not sack Jonathan Bell as enterprise minister.

The Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme hit the headlines in 2016 after it emerged the late introduction of cost control tariffs saw the taxpayer bill spike dramatically.

At one stage it was feared the scheme could cost the public purse hundreds of millions of pounds.

Eco-friendly wood chip boilers similar to the batches used as an incentive in Stormont’s botched green energy scheme (Niall Carson/PA)

Mrs Foster had been minister at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment when the RHI scheme was introduced in 2012.

Mr Bell was minister at the department from May 2015 to May 2016, over a period when costs spiked.

He has insisted he was hampered trying to introduce cost control tariffs and later to close the scheme by DUP special advisers (spads).

Mrs Foster and the spads have contested that claim.

Former DUP minister Jonathan Bell (Rebecca Black/PA)

Mrs Foster claimed Mr Bell “pressed the nuclear button” by giving an interview to the BBC’s The Nolan Show about the RHI scheme.

“(Mr Bell) spoke to Nolan in a fashion that contributed to the breakdown of the Assembly,” she told the inquiry.

The DUP leader claimed that Mr Bell had “painted himself as the victim” in his interview with The Nolan Show, but this was not the case.

“Jonathan had to take what was coming to him in terms of the reaction it caused,” she said.

“We (the DUP and Sinn Fein) had agreed a plan, a way forward to deal with this issue.”

Mrs Foster said that plan had included an inquiry, a cost control plan, and her making a statement to the Assembly.

We were then on a trajectory to the Assembly collapsing and the Executive collapsing

Instead, Stormont descended into crisis in December 2016 following Mr Bell’s interview with The Nolan Show.

On December 19, MLAs from every party other than the DUP walked out of the Assembly chamber when Mrs Foster rose to give a statement on the RHI scheme.

Mrs Foster said Sinn Fein took a dim view of the interview and withdrew from their plan to tackle the issue.

She received a phone call from the deputy first minister Martin McGuinness asking her to step aside.

Sinn Fein then issued a press release publicly calling for Mrs Foster to resign.

“We were then on a trajectory to the Assembly collapsing and the Executive collapsing,” she told the inquiry.

On January 10 2017, Mr McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister and the Assembly collapsed.

Mr Bell appeared at the inquiry earlier in September and claimed the DUP was trying to “fit him up” over the RHI debacle.

Mrs Foster dismissed that, telling the inquiry that “paranoia had set in” with Mr Bell claiming the DUP was trying to blame him.

She insisted that was “not the case”.

Mrs Foster earlier on Tuesday told the inquiry with hindsight she wishes she had removed Mr Bell as a minister in January 2016.

He saw it as a role where he was to be served rather than to serve

“I didn’t think he acted in an appropriate way as a minister,” she told the inquiry.

“He saw it as a role where he was to be served rather than to serve.

“Clearly with hindsight I shouldn’t have left him there, the view was expressed to me, how much harm can he do in three months.”

- Press Association

Join the conversation - comment here

House Rules for comments - FAQ - Important message for commenters


Most Read in Ireland