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Northern Ireland

'Jonathan Bell so drunk he fell asleep in New York pub', claims ex-DUP advisor


Jonathan Bell with Tourism Ireland’s Niall Gibbons and NI chefs Stephen Toman and Ian Orr at the New York launch of NI Year of Food and Drink 2016
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Former DUP minister Jonathan Bell was so drunk that he fell asleep in a New York bar and was asked to leave, his former special adviser has alleged.

Mr Bell, who was leading an Invest Northern Ireland trade mission, then sang the Deep Blue Something hit 'Breakfast At Tiffany's' at the top of his voice as he was helped back to his hotel, Timothy Cairns has claimed.

Mr Bell was minister at the Department of Trade, Enterprise and Investment (Deti) at the time.

It is just one of a series of explosive allegations by Mr Cairns in his witness statements to the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) inquiry. They include:

  • The claim that former party leader Peter Robinson promoted Mr Bell "in the face of allegations and violence" to "higher and yet higher office". The former first minister's actions are described as "inexplicable";
  • DUP chief executive Timothy Johnston ran party matters while he himself was a special adviser, or 'Spad', and operated "outside of what he was permitted to do";
  • Mr Johnston - described as "a powerful individual" who instructed even elected DUP politicians - was involved in the decision to delay RHI cost controls;
  • Mr Bell's relationship with the DUP leadership deteriorated so much that he refused to go to party meetings and sat with Alliance ministers before Executive meetings rather than his DUP colleagues; and
  • Mr Bell was compiling a dossier of what DUP members got up to in their private lives which he planned to present to party officers.

Mr Cairns is due to begin his evidence to the RHI Inquiry today. In his witness statement, he describes a Deti trip to the US in January 2016.

He claims that at a New York dinner he attended with Mr Bell and two officials, Mr Bell ordered a bottle of wine but asked the others to request wine glasses even though they weren't drinking in order to avoid the bad look of him consuming a bottle by himself.

He says they then went to a pub and a "clearly intoxicated" Mr Bell fell asleep. "The waitress informed us if Mr Bell did not wake up we would have to leave as he was clearly intoxicated.

"Mr Bell woke up, consumed his pint of Guinness and ordered another. We were reluctantly served, but were told if Mr Bell fell asleep we would be asked to leave," Mr Cairns says.

"He again fell asleep and we were immediately asked to leave.

"Mr Bell was unsteady and had to be helped back to the hotel while he sang the Deep Blue Something hit song Breakfast At Tiffany's at full volume."

Mr Cairns is highly critical of Peter Robinson for promoting Mr Bell despite complaints against him.

He describes the former Deti Minister as having an explosive personality. He would allegedly sometimes behave in an intimidating way if his views were challenged.

He claims that Mr Bell threatened him with violence twice and also bullied two DUP female politicians. In reference to his allegation that Mr Bell "pinned a woman against a wall", Mr Cairns says: "This was in reference to the widely known story that he cornered Ms [Michelle] McIlveen at the party conference and had berated her for some time until she broke down in tears. It is also a reference to his behaviour toward Ms [Emma] Little-Pengelly."

"I believe Ms McIlveen and Ms Little-Pengelly reported the incident concerning themselves to Peter Robinson, who took no action."

Claiming Mr Bell threatened to break his finger after one exchange of views, Mr Cairns says: "Jonathan was enraged by what he saw as disrespect.

"While I was making this comment I must have been wagging my finger. Jonathan reached to grab my finger, I pulled it back from his grip.

"In an aggressive tone, Jonathan said: 'If you wag your finger at me again I will break it.'"

In his evidence to the inquiry last week, Mr Bell strongly denied threatening to break his Spad's finger or acting in any way violently towards any individual.

In his witness statement, Mr Cairns claims on another occasion, he had been in a room with Mr Bell when he "went into a rage".

"He stood up and walked towards me in an aggressive manner. I felt physically under threat. He was in a rage with fists clenched.

"I stepped back to the door. He kept walking ...

"He stood, using his bulk, and proceeded to shout aggressively at me for some time. I felt physically threatened. I believed he was going to physically assault me and I left the room."

Mr Cairns claims that Mr Robinson did "nothing to protect those of us who had brought bullying allegations to him".

He states: "Despite the historic allegations made against Mr Bell and his known volatility, Mr Robinson proceeded to promote him. In my opinion this decision by Peter Robinson is inexplicable."

Mr Cairns says he believes the truth could not be told without exposing Mr Robinson for failing to protect the alleged victims.

"Mr Robinson, rather than take the allegations seriously, promoted Jonathan Bell to higher, and yet higher office. My belief is Mr Robinson's behaviour in the face of allegations and violence and bullying is inexplicable," he claims.

In his evidence, Mr Bell said he was a victim of a DUP smear campaign and was erroneously painted as a monster.

Mr Cairns alleges that Mr Bell often swore and "rarely read briefing documents".

He says: "The minister rarely read his ministerial papers or briefing notes, to the point that he often boasted to me that he only ever read the summary sheet. This made the administration of the department exceptionally difficult for senior civil servants and myself. At no stage were any documents or changes to documents concealed from the minister. The minister would have had any opportunity to read all papers passing through his office and suggest any amendments to those."

He claims Mr Bell once missed important Assembly business because he overslept and had to be roused from his sleep by repeated phone calls.

He alleges the Deti minister arrived in Stormont "with wet hair and looking like he had dressed in haste". But he claims Mr Bell turned on him and an official, jabbing his finger and shouting: "You two boys have f***ed up." Mr Cairns says that after becoming First Minister, Arlene Foster expressed concern at the number of foreign trips Mr Bell was taking.

"She questioned if it was required and in and around February 2016 ordered that Minister Bell would not engage any further foreign trips for the duration of the mandate," he states.

The former Spad says he told Mr Bell about the First Minister's decision but "he ignored it and organised foreign travel as he saw fit".

Mr Cairns says that Mr Bell was once asked to meet Mrs Foster in Stormont Castle but refused and spent the evening with Mr Robinson instead.

He claims the Deti minister would often recount a story about Mr Robinson allegedly summoning a civil servant who said "no" to his office for "a dressing down".

Mr Cairns says: "Jonathan would finish the story by saying, 'They never said no to Peter again and they will never say no to me'."

He alleges that he did not wish to be Mr Bell's Spad and that no Spad in the DUP had wanted to work with him. The former Spad claims that Timothy Johnston was involved in the decision to delay RHI cost controls in August 2015 when he was an adviser to Mr Robinson.

He names Mrs Foster's Spad, Dr Andrew Crawford, as also involved in the decision to delay the regulations.

"While Andrew Crawford and Timothy Johnston indicated that they would be content with a date in early October for cost controls, their view was that the latest possible date should be sought," Mr Cairns claims in his statement.

In his evidence, he describes Mr Johnston as "a powerful individual within the DUP" who "ran all matters relating to the party".

He alleges that "in running party matters while a Spad", Mr Johnston was "operating outside of what he was permitted to do".

Mr Cairns claims Mr Johnston "often acted as First Minister/party leader proxy on many matters concerning the DUP's policy on issues and consequently executive policy".

He says "it was accepted by elected politicians and party staff that a request from Mr Johnston was an instruction that must be carried out".

In his evidence, he refers to a conversation between Dr Crawford and Stormont official Mike Brennan. He claims Dr Crawford had told him that Mr Brennan had made a "veiled accusation" that Dr Crawford was trying to keep the RHI scheme open to benefit his family and friends. Dr Crawford was "outraged" by the claim which he denies.

Mr Cairns alleges that in November 2015 Mrs Foster - then finance minister - called him personally seeking to have the introduction of RHI cost controls delayed for two weeks for a constituent who wished to install six boilers under the RHI scheme.

The Permanent Secretary, Dr Andrew McCormick, had resisted this request and Mrs Foster had accepted that the deadline would not be shifted.

The former Spad says he was concerned that issues raised by a whistleblower about fraudulent use of the RHI scheme were not being taken seriously enough by the civil service leadership of Deti.

He claims he had raised these concerns "at least 10 times" with Chris Stewart of Deti. He also raised the suspected fraud issue in a meeting with the permanent secretary and the minister, he alleges.

"There was reluctance to deal with the matter as it would be costly to properly investigate," he says. "There was little I could do other than ask officials and civil servants to act. The minister, when it was raised, did not press the issue with officials." Reference is made in material posted on the RHI website to alleged text messages between Mr Johnston and Sinn Fein Spad Aidan McAteer in February 2016. Mr McAteer reportedly wrote: "We should keep any discussion of soft landing for renewable heat scheme out of the executive.

"Can Jonny Bell and Conor Murphy meet today so that they can go public with it in an agreed manner."

Further references are made in other documents to a private meeting between Mr Bell and Mr Murphy. Reference is also made to an electronic note created by the DUP's Paul Givan on May 26, 2017 following a conversation with Mr Cairns the previous evening. It states: "Could expose the lies of a ginger deputy to the chief."

The former Spad said it wasn't an accurate reflection of the conversation.

Belfast Telegraph

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Jonathan Bell with Tourism Ireland’s Niall Gibbons and NI chefs Stephen Toman and Ian Orr at the New York launch of NI Year of Food and Drink 2016

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Jonathan Bell with then-DUP leader Peter Robinson and party colleague Michelle McIlveen in 2011

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