SF minister denies knowing of secret messages at ‘rocky’ evidence session

Mairtin O Muilleoir, who took over Stormont's finance ministry in May, is pictured on a TV screen in Stormont's Parliament Buildings.
Mairtin O Muilleoir, who took over Stormont's finance ministry in May, is pictured on a TV screen in Stormont's Parliament Buildings.

Stormont’s Sinn Fein Finance Minister insists he has no questions to answer over a colleague’s controversial contact with a witness during an inquiry into Northern Ireland’s biggest property deal.

Mairtin O Muilleoir said he was “totally chillaxed” (a portmanteau of “chilled out” and “relaxed”) about attempts to link him to the controversy, which had forced the resignation of fellow Sinn Fein MLA Daithi McKay.

Mr McKay was formerly the chairman of the Assembly’s Finance Committee, which was conducting an inquiry into allegations surrounding the sale of a vast package of property loans from Ireland’s National Assets Management Agency (Nama) to an American firm.

It had been alleged that money linked to the deal was transferred into an offshore account and earmarked for a Northern Irish politician.

All parties involved in the 2014 transaction have denied wrongdoing.

Earlier this year, private Twitter messages were published in the press showing Mr McKay had been in contact with loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson ahead of his appearance as a witness before his own inquiry.

Sinn Fein worker Thomas O’Hara was also suspended by the party, accused of coaching Mr Bryson in what to say to the inquiry.

The Twitter messages made reference to Mr O Muilleoir – who was then a member of the finance committee – indicating how he might intervene during the evidence session involving Mr Bryson.

Speaking on Wednesday before the Assembly’s finance scrutiny committee, Mr O Muilleoir said: “Whether I am mentioned two times or 200 times I had no knowledge of the communications.”

He added: “I had no knowledge of the communications, no hand, act or part in the correspondence or exchange between misters Bryson, O’Hara and McKay.”

During a lengthy appearance, the Sinn Fein minister repeatedly batted away questions from DUP chairwoman Emma Pengelly.

He told fellow MLAs: “What part of ‘no involvement with, no part in, no knowledge of’ does the committee, with all due respect, not understand?”

Mr O Muilleoir branded some of the questions “a wee bit silly” and at one point, stated: “I think I have answered that one, let’s move on to question number three.”

The minister said he only learned about the controversy while on holiday in the Basque Country, it was claimed.

He also told MLAs: “I have no knowledge of who Thomas O’Hara is or isn’t.

“I do not believe I have ever met the guy. I do not believe I have ever had any contact with him; I certainly never heard of him until this story broke.”

Jamie Bryson had gone before the committee to name ex-DUP leader Peter Robinson in connection with the Nama deal.

Mr Robinson strongly denies any wrongdoing, and said that Mr Bryson had not produced “one shred of evidence” to support his claims.

Political rivals had called for Mr O Muilleoir to stand aside, but he hit back, saying: “I am totally relaxed, totally chillaxed about this...

“On this issue of trying to usurp or subvert the role of the committee or trying to prepare witnesses; trying to have a discussion outside the room with witnesses; trying to prep witnesses; all that, I am afraid, on this particular affair I had no involvement with.”

Mr McKay acknowledged his own wrongdoing and quit as an MLA on August 18.

The Sinn Fein leadership has denied knowing anything of the back-channel contact with Jamie Bryson.

In the wake of the controversy 18 Sinn Fein members left the party.

Ms Pengelly described the evidence session as a “bit rocky” at times.

She said: “Clearly there are serious issues here and people are very concerned.”

The start of the lengthy meeting at Parliament Buildings was delayed for over an hour after an intervention from the PSNI.

Detective Superintendent Kevin Geddes, from the PSNI’s Serious Crime Branch, said: “Police do not wish to impede in any way the business of the Assembly and will endeavour to progress our enquiries as quickly as possible.

“The request was made as it was considered to be inappropriate at this time to have parliamentary scrutiny of events which are the subject of a criminal investigation by police.”