The sheer extent of work which still needs to be done by MLAs probing the NAMA property deal has been laid bare.
Stormont’s Finance Committee has been poring over the details of the hugely contentious property deal since July last year, and has now released a progress report which identifies at least 18 “key witnesses” whose evidence is still required.
They range from international businessmen to a former finance minister in the Northern Irish government.
The report said it must speak to each of them in person if it is to reach its objective of unravelling the details surrounding the deal (see below).
However, as reported by the News Letter on Tuesday’s front page, the committee could have used its powers to compel witnesses to attend, but has not done so.
The report was particularly critical of NAMA itself, and of the Irish government.
It also found that ministers and top Northern Irish officials “had insufficient professional advice to fully assess the strategic considerations in relation to NAMA’s operations in Northern Ireland”, and that the whole affair risked causing “reputational damage” to the governments of both Northern Ireland and the Republic.
With only around three weeks now left before the Assembly is dissolved ahead of the upcoming May election, the report ended by recommending that the new committee which will be formed after May should seek to draw the inquiry to a conclusion “early in the next mandate” (that is, early in the life of the new Assembly).
However, the report also appeared to raise the possibility that the inquiry may never be finished at all, stating at one point that its handling of uncooperative witnesses may need to be revisited “in the event that the successor committee decides to conclude the review”.
The report said there simply had not been time to interview all the people it wanted to before the Assembly’s current term ends.
Its list of “key witnesses” which a newly formed post-election committee should interview in the flesh include:
Former finance minister Simon Hamilton.
Two former special advisors in Stormont’s Department of Finance and Personnel, Graham Craig and Allan Ewart (neither of whom responded to the invitation to appear before MLAs);
Representatives of NAMA itself, who have so far “refused to attend oral hearings”;
Frank Cushnahan and Brian Rowntree, both former external members of NAMA’s Northern Ireland Advisory Committee;
Representatives of New York-based Cerberus, which has so far declined to attend (a firm which has ties to ex-US vice-president Dan Quayle);
Representatives of California-based firm PIMCO, which had been considering buying the package of loans, and has also so far declined to attend;
And Belfast businessman Gareth Robinson (the son of ex-first minister Peter Robinson).
Some witnesses had already offered written statements, but declined to offer oral evidence.
Inquiry has been ‘losing steam’
Jim Allister said the inquiry by the finance committee appeared to have been losing momentum for some time.
The MLA said: “I’m disappointed that they didn’t complete their task... I detected after the Fresh Start deal between the DUP and Sinn Fein [in November] that some of the steam seemed to go out of the investigation, and I do wonder is there a nod-and-a-wink agreement to soft-pedal this issue – which of course would be compatible with the delay and the failure to complete the exercise.”
The TUV leader said some would-be witnesses had “thumbed their nose” at the MLAs by failing to appear.
He added: “I’m disappointed as a scrutiny committee they have not been as vigorous as they started out to be in interrogating this issue.
Irish government criticised:
Among the many points of concern raised by the report are that the Irish government had failed to encourage NAMA representatives to attend a hearing in Northern Ireland.
The report stated: “The committee found the refusal of NAMA to attend an oral evidence session particularly unhelpful.
“NAMA needed to be more open and accessible given the importance of the Project Eagle portfolio to the Northern Ireland economy.
“The committee does not accept NAMA’s rationale for not attending an oral hearing of the committee, especially given that agency representatives have previously held many meetings with Ministers and officials in Northern Ireland.”
It said that the committee “regrets that minister Noonan [Fine Gael’s Michael Noonan, who heads the Republic’s Department of Finance] did not encourage NAMA to attend an oral hearing of the committee.”
It also criticises Mr Noonan (and NAMA’s own board too) for not moving to suspend the sale of the massive bundle of Northern Ireland property loans once details emerged of fees which would have been set to be paid as a result of a deal – an area which the report calls “a core area of concern with the entire sale and purchase process”.
NAMA: What’s the big deal about?
NAMA (the National Assets Management Agency) was set up to take control of property loans made by Irish banks after the financial crash.
In 2014 a US body called Cerberus then bought the rights to a package of loans on Northern Irish properties for over £1bn (a package known as Project Eagle and originally valued at an estimated £4.5bn).
The deal was thrust into the public spotlight at the start of last July, after Mick Wallace TD claimed in the Irish parliament that a roughly £7m payment linked to the deal had been made to an offshore account and earmarked for a Northern Irish politician.
Following this claim, the Stormont inquiry was set up, run by its 11-strong finance committee.
In addition to the Stormont probe, other investigations also began by the UK National Crima Agency, and Northern Ireland’s Law Society.