Ian Paisley has used Parliamentary privilege to demand that the retired judge chairing the public inquiry into the RHI scandal apologise to him for “putting words in the mouth of a witness”.
Speaking in the House of Commons on Wednesday afternoon, the North Antrim MP was visibly furious as he alleged that a witness to the RHI inquiry “lied” about him in evidence given under oath last week.
And, in a highly unusual public message to inquiry chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin, Mr Paisley told the Commons: “I will not be lied about by Teri Clifton or by the chairman of an inquiry or by the newspapers in Northern Ireland.”
The dispute stems from evidence given to the inquiry last week by Teri Clifton, a manager at Ofgem, which runs the RHI scheme for Stormont.
She told the inquiry that around November or December 2015, several weeks after Stormont had finally introduced cost controls on the green energy scheme, she had been phoned out of the blue by an applicant who had missed the deadline to enter the uncapped scheme.
Ms Clifton said that she realised that she was on speakerphone and that at the other end were present Mr Paisley, representatives of the applicants’ agent, Action Renewables, and large poultry processor Moy Park, as well as the applicants themselves.
Sir Patrick put it to the witness: “Well, you used the word ‘interesting’. It could also be described as intimidating, I would have thought.”
Ms Clifton replied: “It was very intimidating. It was intimidating.”
The chairman then put it to her: “And, perhaps, deliberately intimidating?”
Ms Clifton replied: “It may have been. I don’t think it was ... intentionally intimidating. I think it was designed to catch me off guard, to make my decision look like the wrong one in front of that crowd of people.”
The inquiry went on to be told that it had obtained documentation from Mr Paisley which showed that he had subsequently written to the special advisor in the DUP-run Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment on behalf of the applicants.
Part of the letter read to the inquiry said: “This gentleman has been in to see me along with the Ulster Farmers’ Union and representative Teri Clifton in Ofgem, who are very concerned about the way his case has been handled.”
Ms Clifton told the inquiry that “isn’t a fair representation of me endorsing that Ofgem were wrong at all ... that’s completely wrong”.
Speaking in the Commons, Mr Paisley said that he took “complete exception to” the exchange between Sir Patrick and Ms Clifton: “She alleged that I called her in November 2015 ... no such call took place. It is a lie to suggest that such a call took place. I was not involved in any conference call.”
Mr Paisley said he understood that on March 26 2016 there was a call between Ms Clifton, the applicants, Action Renewables and a plumbing firm, but added: “I was not involved in that call and neither was the company Moy Park involved in that call.”
He went on: “For someone to stand up and tell the press, or to tell an inquiry, a calumny of the highest order – that a Member of Parliament was involved in a conference call when they were not – they should be ashamed of themselves.
“And they should be brought back to the inquiry and put through the wringer and asked why they lied to the inquiry about such a matter.”
He added: “And importantly, the chairman of the inquiry, for putting words in the mouth of a witness, should apologise to me personally for his conduct and his actions as I do not take it at all well ... I will not be lied about by Teri Clifton or by the chairman of an inquiry or by the newspapers in Northern Ireland.”
He accused Sir Patrick of “going out of his ways [sic] to sensationalise matters about me”.
Sir Patrick Coghlin’s inquiry issued a brief and restrained response to Mr Paisley’s comments.
In a statement, the inquiry said: “The inquiry does not intend to engage in debate about evidence given to it, outside of its formal hearing process.
“If Mr Paisley, or anyone else has evidence that they wish to give to the inquiry, they should provide it to the inquiry in writing.”