Public Affairs

SPAD behaviour at centre of RHI inquiry

(L to R): Former DUP SPAD Andrew Crawford and former Minister Simon Hamilton.

Statements given to the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) Inquiry paint a picture of a Stormont run by SPADs, with the former head of the Department of Enterprise telling the Inquiry that SPADs “were in charge” since the Executive’s reestablishment in 2007.

Andrew McCormick, the senior civil servant who headed the Department of Enterprise, made the declaration as he told the Inquiry that he had warned former First Minister Arlene Foster that her former SPAD, Andrew Crawford, was responsible for the delay in cost controls being introduced once the irregularities in the scheme had been spotted.

McCormick told the Inquiry that he had informed the then First Minister that Crawford was behind the delays prior to her stating in an interview with broadcaster Stephen Nolan in December 2016 that she had “no idea” why the cost controls had not been implemented at that stage. Foster had told the Inquiry that she was not aware of the allegations against Crawford until after she had given the interview, but McCormick said that the conversation could not have happened after the recording of the interview because he did not speak to Foster in the days following. The DUP leader made a fresh statement to the Inquiry on 21 November, acknowledging the possibility that “given the febrile atmosphere” of the Inquiry, she had been “wrong about the sequencing” of the events.

Foster’s statement stated that she had “no idea as to the facts of what took place [including Jonathan Bell’s interview with Nolan that exposed the scandal] and therefore I do not believe that my reply to Mr Nolan was contrary to the principle of openness”, but Nolan has stated that the BBC offered Foster the chance to listen to Bell’s interview before replying.

McCormick said that he had not asked for copies of emails that alleged Crawford’s delaying of the controls because he “would have been rebuffed”. “The reality of what we’d got used to was that they [SPADs] were in charge” He told the Inquiry that he had been asked by Timothy Johnston, now chairman of the DUP, to search the RHI database for relatives of Crawford and found his brother James and cousins Richard and John.

It was also alleged by McCormick that Crawford told him “we could fill our boots” at the Northern Ireland Food & Drink Association’s annual dinner in October 2016, as he was under the impression that RHI money was being paid for by the Treasury rather than Stormont. Crawford had said that the conversation had not taken place because he did not believe he had attended the dinner. When it was later proved that he had, he was called by the Inquiry to clarify. He accepted the finding and thanked the Inquiry for “the opportunity to correct the evidence”.

The last member of the DUP to give evidence to the Inquiry, former Minister for the Economy Simon Hamilton, expressed his remorse that his SPAD, John Robinson, leaked physical copies of “pretty explosive” emails to the media and to McCormick, his department’s permanent secretary, to take pressure off the party. Hamilton said that the incident was “not my proudest moment”. The emails were delivered in envelopes by Royal Mail to the BBC, News Letter and McCormick’s office, which was next door to Hamilton’s at the time. They contained correspondence between civil servants in the enterprise department and the agri-food industry in summer 2015 and featured inappropriately shared information.

“McCormick told the Inquiry that he had been asked by Timothy Johnston, now chairman of the DUP, to search the RHI database for relatives of Crawford and found his brother James and cousins Richard and John.”

Hamilton also expressed regret that he had not exerted more pressure and authority on the officials he had tasked with limiting expenditure once the scheme had been closed to new applicants. He called the report that was produced by these officials in October 2016 “shoddy” and “flawed” and talked of how his “heart sank” when he realised that those who had compiled the report were the same officials who had failed to initially spot the flaws within RHI.

Following the comments by Sir Patrick Coghlin, the Inquiry’s chairman, that the DUP had “camouflaged” the process by which they appoint SPADs, Hamilton said that he was “concerned” to hear of such allegations, but that he had followed the code when appointing Robinson, then the party Director of Communications, as his SPAD. Robinson has since returned to his role as Director of Communications.

With SPADs and their powers already a main talking point of the Inquiry, Sinn Féin “super SPAD” Aidan McAteer admitted to the Inquiry that he had been told about empty sheds being heated before Sinn Féin voted to keep RHI open for another two weeks. Both McAteer and SPAD Mark Mullan testified that SPADs were made aware of the problems with RHI, including a whistleblower’s letter, but never alerted former deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, who they say was not made aware of the issue until January 2017. This is disputed by Foster, who told the Inquiry that she believed she had told McGuinness of the letter and that even if she had not, Malcolm McKibbin, head of the civil service, would have.

Throughout the course of the Inquiry, Sinn Féin have been forced to admit that Máirtín Ó Muilleoir’s contention that McAteer’s salary was paid by party funds was untrue. McAteer was removed from his position as SPAD in 2013 following the passing of a law barring those with serious criminal convictions from such roles but was kept on by Sinn Féin in a senior advisory role in which he managed the party’s SPADs. In a statement given to the Inquiry, Carál Ní Chuilin said that McAteer “was paid through public funds, specifically the FAPP (Financial Assistance for Political Parties) Scheme to carry out related to the Assembly and to work with myself as chief whip alongside carrying out other duties identified by the deputy First Minister and authorised by myself”.

Closing oral statements were given to the Inquiry on 12 December 2018, with final legal submissions handed in by 14 December.

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