Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness’s department has refused to say why it apparently hid a key document which has emerged as part of the NAMA scandal.
On Thursday NAMA chairman Frank Daly revealed that in January 2014 Mr Robinson’s principal private secretary, Jeremy Gardner, sent the Republic’s state-owned ‘bad bank’ a memorandum of understanding (MoU) which Mr Daly said had puzzled the body.
It ignored the proposal because it was a “debtors’ charter”.
The approach was made three months before NAMA sold its Northern Ireland loan book to huge US investor Cerberus in a £1.1 billion deal.
As reported in Saturday’s News Letter, a copy of the document obtained by this newspaper shows that it bore significant similarities to a proposal which the then finance minister Sammy Wilson had sent to Dublin on behalf of US law firm Brown Rudnick – who represented two US firms bidding for the NAMA loans, PIMCO and Cerberus.
It can now be revealed that last year the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) claimed not to have a copy of the document – despite the fact that its potentially enormous significance to the largest property deal in the history of the island of Ireland means that it ought to have been retained in OFMDFM’s filing system.
The revelation raises further questions as to why Stormont’s most senior department appears to have attempted to hide the document.
Last May – four months after the MoU was sent from Stormont Castle – an individual lodged a Freedom of Information (FoI) request which said: “I...request in respect of 2014 copies of all correspondence, all internal briefings, all draft correspondence or briefings, all notes and in general all records held, created, sent or received by the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister concerning NAMA’s Northern Ireland loan book.”
But when OFMDFM eventually responded, it did not admit to the existence of the MoU. Instead, it released two fairly anodyne documents, which it claimed was all the relevant material held on NAMA in the relevant period.
Even after the requestor asked for that decision to be re-examined by the department, a second civil servant confirmed that claim. He said that “an extensive consultation took place across all business areas in the department to ascertain if they had any relevant information”, describing it as a “comprehensive sweep across the department”.
He added: “I am content that the information you received represents all the material this department possessed which fell under the scope of your revised request.
“I appreciate you have reservations regarding the volume of information you received from OFMDFM, however, this reflects the fact that information on NAMA’s Northern Ireland loan book is finance-driven, and that OFMDFM is not the lead department on NAMA issues.”
Similarly, Assembly questions from TUV leader Jim Allister about the existence of the MoU have gone unanswered for months, in breach of Assembly rules, although the department did not tell the Assembly – as it did in the FoI response – that the document did not exist.
Sinn Fein has claimed that Mr Robinson was engaged in a solo run when he sent the document to NAMA.
But in a BBC interview on Friday Mr Robinson suggested that Sinn Fein had been aware of his activities and claimed that a paper trail existed to prove that claim.
Last Thursday the News Letter asked OFMDFM why the MoU and correspondence related to it were not released in response to the FoI request.
We also asked OFMDFM to set out the origins of the document, to state whether both Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness would be aware that one of their civil servants would be sending it to Dublin and whether the head of the civil service, Malcolm McKibbin, was content that civil servants and ministers acted appropriately during the process which led to the sale of NAMA’s Northern Ireland loan book.
At the suggestion of the DUP press office, the questions were copied to the DUP. Neither has yet responded to any of the questions.
The Information Commissioner’s Office, which polices the transparency law, has repeatedly raised grave concerns about how OFMDFM often ignores the law by not responding to requests for information – even though the law states that every request should receive a response (even if that is a refusal) within 20 working days.
Mr Robinson spoke out on Friday to state firmly that neither he, his family nor his party had been in line to receive a penny from the NAMA deal.