First Minister Arlene Foster has been accused of giving Sinn Fein’s Finance Minister “a soft landing” over widespread calls for him to stand aside pending an inquiry into alleged coaching of witnesses at a Stormont committee hearing.
On August 18 social media correspondence was revealed between Sinn Fein’s chair of the Stormont finance committee Daithi McKay and loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson, which appeared to show the MLA helping coach him for testimony against then First Minister Peter Robinson in the Nama property inquiry.
The UUP, Alliance and SDLP and the finance committee have all since called on Sinn Fein’s Mairtin O Muilleoir to stand aside from his current position as Finance Minister pending an inquiry; he was a dominant figure in the committee hearings and was mentioned several times in the social media correspondence between Mr McKay and Mr Bryson.
Mrs Foster spoke for the first time on Friday morning about the minister’s position to the BBC.
“I believe, on balance, it would be to the benefit of the institutions if he had stepped aside even temporarily,” she said.
“People have stepped aside temporarily in the past. Sinn Fein have decided he is to remain in place and at the end of the day it is their call.”
But UUP leader Mike Nesbitt criticised her stance.
“This morning Arlene Foster finally caught up and expressed support for the position the Ulster Unionist Party were first to take – that Mairtin O Muilleoir should step aside while the issue of the Nama coaching saga is investigated,” he said.
“However, she continued by stating it was not her call, he was not her minister and that was the end of the matter.
“What an odd position for someone heading a devolved government to take. So much for the DUP’s boast post St Andrews that they had fixed the Belfast Agreement in terms of ministerial accountability and solo runs. In their 2007 manifesto they stated ‘ministers will no longer be able to act alone, in narrow party interests’.”
TUV leader Jim Allister added: “It is clear that once more for the DUP protecting the process is more important than doing what’s right.
“Arlene Foster’s perfunctory call for the Finance Minister to stand aside, before compliantly accepting that it is a matter for Sinn Fein, indicates two things: that the DUP leader is ready to give Sinn Fein a soft landing on this matter and that the pretence St Andrews created meaningful mechanisms to hold ministers to account was a con.”
But DUP MLA Christopher Stalford said there is “no issue under the ministerial code” for Mr O Muilleoir to answer, so therefore the accountability mechanisms do not come into play.