Best comment I’ve heard about Jonathan Bell’s version of his part in the RHI drama (it is a scandal of course, but most of the public story so far has been much more contrived than that would imply), is that it could be characterised as “being there, but not involved”.
It’s a neat sleight of hand (and not one normally afforded to unionist politicians by the NI media) to ignore the fact that Mr Bell was, in fact, the minister in charge when his Permanent Secretary finally got round to telling him that there was, ahem, a wee bit of a budget issue with RHI.
The other mystery is; one, why Sinn Fein fought tooth and nail against calls for a public inquiry until the very last minute; and two, having given us one, why RHI drifted very quickly off the radar to be replaced by calls for an Irish Language Act that hadn’t been on their radar for years?
In yesterday’s Irish News John Manley may offer an answer.
Minutes from civil service head Malcolm McKibbin show a meeting took place on February 9 2016 between then First Minister Arlene Foster and then Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.
The first item on the agenda was the closure of RHI and a discussion about whether “the scheme should be left open until a date to be determined to allow for the completion of applications already in progress”.
The meeting shows that Mr McGuinness’s special adviser Aidan McAteer was “to progress this”.
Well, this much we knew already in February last year. What’s new is the degree of collusion between Sinn Fein and the DUP to keep the bad news from Executive colleagues:
The evidence also reveals a text message on the day after the meeting from Mr McAteer to Timothy Johnston, Mrs Foster’s spad, in which the Sinn Féin adviser said: “We should keep any discussion of a soft landing for renewable. [sic] Heating scheme out of the Executive.”
Mr McAteer asks if a meeting can be arranged later that day between Mr Bell and Sinn Féin MLA Conor Murphy “so they can go public with it in an agreed manner”. [Emphasis added]
Understandable from a political point of view, but it hardly tallies with Sinn Fein’s sudden desertion of the ship in that controversial Assembly plenary which saw it trigger the semi-permanent collapse of Stormont some 599 days (and still counting) ago.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty