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Summary

  1. Renewable Heat Incentive Inquiry examining botched energy scheme
  2. Former DUP enterprise minister Jonathan Bell appears before inquiry panel
  3. Inquiry set up after public concern over scheme's huge projected overspend
  4. Retired Court of Appeal judge Sir Patrick Coghlin chairing inquiry at Stormont
  5. Public hearings entering critical phase with high-profile witnesses giving evidence

Live Reporting

By Iain McDowell and Robin Sheeran

All times stated are UK

  1. That's all for this week...

    The RHI Inquiry's first week back after the prolonged summer break has proved to be one of high drama.

    We're off to lie down in a darkened room.

    Stormont's Parliament Buildings

    Join us again next Tuesday at the usual time of 09:45 when the witness will be Mr Bell's former DUP adviser Tim Cairns.

    Enjoy your weekend!

  2. What happened today at the RHI Inquiry?

    BBC News NI

    Former enterprise minister Jonathan Bell denied that he opposed a two-week extension to the closure of the RHI scheme because it made him look foolish.

    The claim has been made by DUP leader Arlene Foster and two party advisers.

    Jonathan Bell

    They've told the inquiry that Mr Bell's concern was not about protecting public finances but that he didn't want to make a political u-turn that would have been personally embarrassing.

    In response, he said he wanted to be a "proper steward of public funds" and that the decision to extend the scheme made him and the rest of the party look foolish.

  3. 'I've achieved my objectives over RHI scandal'

    Mr Bell "will offer a full and frank apology" if the inquiry panel finds he was at fault for anything in the RHI debacle, he says in an emotional speech to end his testimony.

    His only motivations, he claims, was for "those hundreds of millions of pounds to get back into the health service and education system" and for a public inquiry to investigate what happened.

    Jonathan Bell

    He "knew I would have to sacrifice my political career" for those things to happen.

    "Both of my objectives, I have achieved them," he closes.

  4. 'Don't see your need to use hidden recording device'

    Mr Bell did not tell Dr McCormick that he was recording their meeting because he might not "have been getting the accurate information" otherwise.

    He's pressed on his reason for the "concealed recording" by the inquiry chair Sir Patrick Coghlin, who notes that Mr Bell regarded Dr McCormick as a "man of integrity".

    "One possible inference is that you did not consider him to be a man of integrity," says the chair.

    Sir Patrick Coghlin

    Mr Bell says he needed a "contemporaneous, accurate account" of their discussion and that because Dr McCormick was at the time working to a different minister there may have been a reluctance "to have information released".

    "I had serious concerns that the actual information that I was seeking and needing was being evaded."

    Sir Patrick responds: "I still, I'm afraid, do not see why it was necessary to bring a concealed recording device."

    Mr Bell says he's "refused to allow" his secret recordings to be broadcast because his sole purpose for making them was for "validating what I had to say".

  5. 'If I didn't call this out, who would?'

    There have been "all sorts of questions as to what my motivation was" in making his allegations about what happened with the RHI scheme, says Mr Bell.

    Jonathan Bell

    But he says the thing that "resonated" with him most was that hospitals were set to lose out on hundreds of millions of pounds as a result of the vast overspend on the RHI scheme.

    "I felt that... if I don't call this out, who will? If it's not me, who does it? And if it's not now, when will it ever been done?" he says.

  6. 'Bell well prepared for meeting with top official'

    In the midst of the media frenzy in December 2016 over the RHI scheme, Mr Bell - who was no longer minister - contacted the DETI permanent secretary Dr Andrew McCormick (below) to ask if he could view documents from his time at the department.

    He subsequently met the Dr McCormick at DETI headquarters near Stormont to look over the files and he secretly recorded both his initial telephone call to the civil servant and their meeting.

    Mr Scoffield says the witness has since used some of the things Dr McCormick said to corroborate his own view of events.

    Dr Andrew McCormick

    Dr McCormick says in his evidence to the inquiry that he feels Mr Bell had "a well-prepared approach" to the conversation.

    His view is that Mr Bell may have been angling the conversation to get him to agree with a particular viewpoint.

    Mr Bell says he regards Dr McCormick as "a man of integrity" and all he wanted was "a valid record" of his concerns.

  7. 'Second meeting with Foster much more friendly'

    Several hours after their "abusive" meeting at Stormont, Mr Bell and Mrs Foster met in her office - it was a "much more friendly" encounter, he says.

    "Arlene was in agreement then with me and said: 'I think what you're saying is correct'," he adds.

    A man and a woman shaking hands

    It was at that point that she asked for a two-weeks extension to the RHI scheme, he claims.

    He told his top civil servant at DETI that closure in two weeks would be acceptable to the first minister and Dr Andrew McCormick replied that he "could live with that".

    At that point, says Mr Bell, he believed that was the matter "was resolved".

  8. 'Embarrassing u-turn made everybody look foolish'

    Mr Bell says his reason in objecting to an extension to the RHI scheme was to be "a proper steward of public funds".

    Pound coins

    But Mrs Foster and the DUP advisers Tim Cairns and Timothy Johnston say in their evidence that he was more concerned that changing his decision would look like a political u-turn, would be personally embarrassing and would make him look foolish.

    When that's put to him, Mr Bell denies it but admits the extension "made us, me, the party - everybody - look foolish".

  9. 'Foster wanted limited extension for RHI'

    Mrs Foster's evidence to the inquiry is that she wanted a limited extension of the RHI scheme to allow people to complete applications after they had invested in new heating systems.

    Mr Bell says there was "no timeframe identified" in the discussion they had.

    The RHI Inquiry

    The decision was "so urgent in my view that it needed to be taken without accruing further risk to the public purse".

    "There was no valid reason to, in my view, change the situation."

  10. 'Foster said she was first minister so I had to take order'

    Mr Bell says he argued "as passionately as I could" for the closure of the RHI scheme in his meeting with Mrs Foster at Stormont.

    He was due to stand up in the assembly "literally minutes later" to tell MLAs about the plans for the scheme and he needed to know "how we can defend the position of reopening" it when he did "not believe it was right".

    Jonathan Bell

    "I argued hard... but she ordered me to do it," he adds.

    "It was clear - she said: 'Look, I am first minister - you will follow my order. I'm instructing you - you will follow my order.'"

    Mrs Foster's argument for keeping the scheme open was that the "needs of industry" had to be taken into account, claims Mr Bell, but that was "totally unreasonable", he says, because the initiative was "out of control".

  11. 'Foster overruled me in strongest tems'

    Mr Bell had a meeting at Stormont's Parliament Buildings with Mrs Foster on 9 February 2016 at which he claims she "instructed" him to keep the RHI scheme open.

    Four days earlier he'd announced that the scheme would close with immediate effect, prompting an angry reaction from potential claimants.

    Video content

    Video caption: Arlene Foster says Jonathan Bell "used his physical bulk" during their confrontation

    In his interview about the RHI scandal with the BBC's Stephen Nolan in December that year, Mr Bell said the then first minister had "overrulled" him "in the strongest terms, both in volume and force".

    "She was highly agitated and angry" and the atmosphere was "abusive", he claimed.

    In her interview with Mr Nolan, Mrs Foster said that Mr Bell had been "very aggressive" with her.

  12. 'Situation was chaotic, confused, far from ideal'

    The circumstances around the attempts to close the RHI scheme were "chaotic, confused and far from ideal", Mr Bell's DUP adviser Tim Cairns says in his evidence to the inquiry.

    Mr Bell says that "any chaos that subsequently ensued" after he signed off on the closure of the scheme on 22 January 2016 was down to those who overturned his approval.

    Burning wood pellets

    "They're going to have to explain how [they overturned my approval] and with what authority they did it," he adds.

    In what must be the first time in the inquiry so far he and Mr Cairns actually agree on something, the former minister says: "It is confused and chaotic."

  13. 'Frenzied political activity quickened RHI closure'

    There was "fairly frenzied political activity" at the end of January 2016 that resulted in the closure of the RHI scheme being "expedited", says Mr Scoffield.

    It had initially been planned to shut the scheme down in March that year but it was decided instead to ditch the usual legislative procedures and end the initiative in the middle of February.

    A hand pressing an emergency stop button

    Asked how that fits with his claim that there was a desire outside DETI to keep the scheme running, Mr Bell says "new information... [about] the costs to the budget" had emerged and a "new decision" was taken by civil servants that "overruled their previous advice to me".

    "We went again with the first immediate recommended date to close."

  14. 'Foster quite clear that RHI is Bell's responsibility'

    In late-January 2016, the then head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service raised concerns about how quickly DETI was acting to shut down the RHI scheme.

    Sir Malcolm McKibben (below) issued a memo to the department's top civil servant to ask about what DETI was doing so he could inform the first and deputy first ministers.

    Sir Malcolm McKibben

    He told Dr Andrew McCormick that the then first minister Arlene Foster was "quite clear" that it was the responsibility of DETI and its minister Mr Bell to "mitigate costs".

    Mr Bell says there was "confusion" because while Sir Malcom's memo suggested Mrs Foster wanted the scheme closed, other instructions appeared to be coming from DUP advisers "to keep it open".

  15. What's happened today at the RHI Inquiry?

    Jayne McCormack

    BBC News NI political reporter

    Sir Patrick Coghlin warned that the inquiry must not be treated as a platform for publishing "sensational" claims for the media.

    Sir Patrick Coghlin

    The inquiry chairman's remark came after claims that former enterprise minister Jonathan Bell made yesterday about a DUP-inspired "smear" campaign against him after the RHI debacle erupted.

    Sir Patrick said that the public hearings did not afford an "open invitation" to witnesses to refer to material to which they objected but that was outside the scope of the inquiry.

  16. Inquiry resumes after lunch break

    The RHI Inquiry

    Jonathan Bell is back in the witness chair and inquiry QC David Scoffield is on his feet to pose more questions to the former DUP minister.

    This afternoon's session will wrap up at about 15:45 - stick with us through until then for all the details.

  17. Time for lunch...

    We're off to digest some of the evidence from today's opening session.

    The inquiry resumes at 14:00 - join us again then.

  18. 'Never withdrew my consent for RHI closure'

    It is "extremely curious" that DETI civil servants had been told that the RHI scheme closure had been put on hold but Mr Bell claims he didn't know about it, says Mr Scoffield.

    "Everyone else seems to know what has happened apart from you... is your evidence that you were totally unaware that this had happened?" he asks the witness.

    Burning wood pellets

    "Nobody came to me and said to me: 'Can you tell us to withdraw your decision?' - that's the most difficult thing about this whole process," replies Mr Bell.

    He says he had "signed for the end of this scheme", "took accountability and responsibility" for his decision and "never withdrew my consent".

  19. 'Wasn't informed that DUP rescinded my approval'

    Mr Bell give official approval to close the RHI scheme on 22 January 2016 but it was rescinded about 20 minutes later.

    In an email to colleagues, a senior civil servant said it had been a "slightly bizarre" afternoon and there would be "serious repercussions" as a result of the approval being overturned.

    A document being stamped as 'Approved'

    A text three days later from Mr Bell's adviser Mr Cairns reveals that the decision about the scheme's closure was "in the hands of DUP party officers - minister cleared but DUP party officers... called papers in".

    Mr Bell says he wasn't aware that the approval had been pulled and adds: "Once I'd given the ministerial authority the ministerial authority was given."

    His adviser claims in his evidence that the minister was aware of what was happening but Mr Bell says: "I can't accept that analysis at all."