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Suzanne Breen: DUP will struggle to recover from devastating RHI revelations

By Suzanne Breen ·

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A former special adviser has denied trying to fit up Jonathan Bell (Liam McBurney/PA)

The claim that DUP minister Jonathan Bell was so drunk that he was asked to leave a New York bar has dominated media coverage of his former special adviser's evidence to the RHI Inquiry.

The image of Mr Bell being helped to his hotel singing Breakfast At Tiffany's at the top of his voice is one which will spring into the public's mind every time the former Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment minister pops up in future.

Mr Bell will undoubtedly be regularly treated to renditions of the Deep Blue Something hit in his day-to-day work as a social worker.

But beyond the banter, a very damning picture has emerged of how the DUP as a party operates.

The evidence to the inquiry has seriously damaged its reputation and given its opponents endless ammunition.

It is impossible to argue with Sir Patrick Coghlin's assertion that the DUP was run in a "rather unpleasant" way. While Arlene Foster's shortcomings are well established, it is totally wrong to lay all the blame for the dysfunctionality at her door. She inherited the party's modus operandi from Peter Robinson.

We have heard allegations of special advisers, who were meant to be appointed by ministers, chosen by the party top brass without any input from the minister in breach of regulations.

Jonathan Bell didn't want Timothy Cairns and Timothy Cairns didn't want Jonathan Bell, but the DUP leadership put them together in what proved to be a toxic and disastrous pairing.

Mr Bell and Mr Cairns may be on opposite sides of the fence on many matters, but they were united in saying there was a hierarchy of special advisers, with Timothy Johnston - now the DUP's chief executive - wielding almost absolute power, even over elected politicians.

The DUP takes prides in its reputation for being an efficient, well-organised machine.

But the level of back-biting and bitchiness among the party's Stormont team exposed during recent RHI evidence has been breath-taking.

The party's backbench MLAs must surely be horrified at what they are hearing.

Unlike unelected Spads, they have to face constituents - and eventually voters - who will be surely be aghast at how the "party of government" conducted itself.

Poison was oozing from the DUP outfit at Stormont on so many levels.

There were allegations of threats of physical violence, blazing rows in front of embarrassed civil servants, the DUP's top Spad allegedly operating outside of what the rules permit him to do, and Mr Bell compiling information on the private lives of DUP members for a dossier planned to give to party officers.

The big question now is, how will party officers address this utter dysfunctionality?

Will they just take the hit of awful media headlines and continue business as usual?

Will they tinker with their machine or will there be root-and-branch reform?

The party is very fortunate that its Ulster Unionist rival isn't generally electorally competitive nowadays.

Because even leaving aside the corruption allegations, the RHI Inquiry presents the DUP in a very poor light indeed.

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A former special adviser has denied trying to fit up Jonathan Bell (Liam McBurney/PA)