During meetings with Dublin’s finance minister, successive DUP finance ministers raised a US law firm’s attempt to engineer a private sale of NAMA’s Northern Ireland loan book, a Stormont inquiry has been told.
US law firm Brown Rudnick wrote to Mr Wilson in June 2013 on behalf of two potential buyers (although it suggested that one of its clients was a more serious contender than the other) and Mr Wilson forwarded their approach to Dublin along with a positive covering letter.
Then — after Mr Wilson was replaced as minister by Simon Hamilton — the issue was the first item on the agenda for the new minister when he met his Dublin counterpart.
Further details of the high level political involvement in the months running up to the vast NAMA deal emerged at the Assembly’s Finance Committee yesterday.
Referring to the Stormont ministers’ representations on behalf of Brown Rudnick, committee chairman Daithi McKay said: “There does seem to be a continuation of that particular issue being a priority for the finance minister.”
The hearing also revealed that Mr Wilson took a considerable interest in a Dundonald housing development, Millmount.
The development — which is being taken forward by Lagan Homes — was the first item of discussion at a meeting between Mr Wilson and NAMA in December 2012, yet there were no minutes taken of the meeting. NAMA had initially planned to sell off the Dundonald land on which Millmount is being built, but after Mr Wilson’s intervention it had a change of heart and released £9 million for building work to get under way.
David Sterling, the permanent secretary at the Department of Finance, told MLAs that no minutes were taken of some meetings between Mr Wilson and the then Dublin finance minister, Brian Lenihan.
The hearing also revealed that Mr Wilson proposed three names for NAMA’s Northern Ireland advisory committee — Frank Cushnahan (one of those appointed and the man who the Dail was told was in line for £5m from a previous attempt to buy NAMA’s Ulster loans), another unnamed ex-banker and civil servant Richard Pengelly.
At the time, Mr Pengelly was a senior official with the Department of Finance. He is now the permanent secretary of the Department of Health and the husband of Emma Pengelly, one of Peter Robinson’s four special advisers.
Yesterday afternoon the DUP pointed out that Mrs Pengelly had not met her future husband at that point.
But Mr Sterling said that the other member of the Northern Ireland advisory committee, Brian Rowntree, had not been suggested by Mr Wilson, but rather “came forward from another source”.
However, despite the importance of the appointments, Mr Sterling said that the department held no information on how the decision to appoint them was made, something which left Mr McKay incredulous.
During yesterday’s hearing, Mr McKay forcefully stated that the committee will use its power — so far unused in the history of the current Stormont — to compel witnesses and documents if they are not willingly forthcoming.
NAMA has already said that it will not attend the hearings.
Top official reluctant to answer
Repeatedly during yesterday’s hearing, Mr Sterling said that he would not answer a question verbally in public but would do so in writing to the committee.
And on several occasions he claimed that he could not answer certain questions because colleagues are on holiday.
Many MLAs on the committee were unimpressed by his approach, with chairman Daithi McKay stating that many of the points being put to the permanent secretary were “obvious questions” for which he should have been prepared.
Mr McKay said: “I am concerned that there is this delay, delay, delay coming from the department.”
But DUP MLA Jim Wells said that was unfair and said that Mr Sterling was operating in a difficult context, due to the ongoing criminal investigation. Mr Sterling has been asked to return in two weeks’ time.
Former ministers Sammy Wilson and Simon Hamilton have also been invited to give evidence.