Much of the anger surrounding the handling of the botched energy scheme has centred on accountability. Aside from the role of Arlene Foster in administering the scheme during her time as Enterprise Minister, which has faced intense scrutiny in the political forum since the failings of the scheme came to light, the role of the unaccountable Special Adviser (SPAD) has also had a spotlight shown on it in recent months.
The most recent revelation in relation to SPAD involvement in the RHI scheme came from an allegation made by TUV’s Jim Allister under parliamentary privilege. Allister alleges that Stephen Brimstone, a former SPAD to Arlene Foster, “ripped off” the RHI scheme by using installing a non-domestic boiler at his newly-built home. Allister also said that Brimstone, who left the party around a fortnight before Jonathan Bell’s whistleblowing TV interview, had personally recommended the RHI scheme to a poultry farmer constituent of his in North Antrim “in the early days of the scheme”. Brimstone has not commented on the allegations but the DUP had previously acknowledged that he was an RHI claimant but said that his resignation was not linked to the green energy scheme.
The allegation came shortly after senior civil servant, Andrew McCormick, told the Stormont Public Accounts Committee that he believed DUP SPAD Andrew Crawford had influenced the decision to keep the RHI scheme open. The allegation had previously been made by Bell, however both counts were denied by Crawford. He resigned 24 hours after the allegation was made. Crawford’s brother is a poultry farmer and in receipt of payments from the scheme.
Crawford’s resignation was the second casualty in the space of a week in relation to the scheme. Just days before, Simon Hamilton’s SPAD in the Department for the Economy, John Robinson (pictured above), stood aside from any duties relating to RHI after it was revealed that his father-in-law was a poultry farmer and running two RHI boilers.
Suspended DUP member Bell had used parliamentary privilege to allege that SPAD Timothy Cairns had advised him that he would not be allowed to close down the scheme because Timothy Johnston and John Robinson had extensive interests in the poultry industry. A DUP statement accused Bell of “mud-slinging” and stated that Timothy Johnston had no interests in the poultry industry, while John Robinson’s family home had chicken houses, which were not part of the RHI scheme. However, following the revelations about his father-in-law Robinson stated that he wanted to avoid a perception of conflict of interest.