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Committee urges minister Mairtín O Muilleoir to step aside to restore public confidence

By Noel McAdam

Published 24/08/2016

DUP’s finance committee chair Emma Pengelly
DUP’s finance committee chair Emma Pengelly
Jamie Bryson along appears before Stormont's Nama inquiry

Pressure is mounting on Finance Minister Mairtín O Muilleoir to stand down over the Nama 'back channel' scandal amid warnings that public confidence in Stormont has been "shattered".

The Assembly's finance committee is demanding that the Sinn Fein Minister should step aside pending an inquiry into claims that loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson was coached before giving his testimony to the previous committee.

But Mr O Muilleoir is also being asked to appear before the committee to answer further questions despite his public denial that he knew anything about the 'back channel'.

The Finance Minister will also be requested to provide all information on any communications with former committee chair Daithí McKay, who resigned as an MLA last week after admitting "inappropriate" contact with former flags protester Bryson.

A special meeting of the committee yesterday also agreed - despite objections from Sinn Fein member Caitriona Ruane - to invite Mr McKay to make clear whether he had any meetings or contact with other witnesses who gave evidence to the investigation including claims £7m in an offshore bank account was earmarked for a Northern Ireland politician. DUP, SDLP and Ulster Unionist committee members yesterday insisted that public confidence in the Assembly and its committees had been "shattered" by the disclosures.

But Ms Ruane accused her committee colleagues of "petty party politicking" and argued they were going beyond their remit.

The former Education Minister said the committee was "crossing a line" and should allow the Assembly Standards Commissioner Douglas Bain to get on with his investigation into the affair.

The DUP's Jim Wells, however, said Sinn Fein ministers should be held to the same standards as the DUP and citied former First Minister Peter Robinson who stood aside in 2010 over claims he failed to inform the authorities about financial dealings involving his wife, Iris.

The SDLP's Gerry Mullan also said he was "annoyed" by Ms Ruane's remarks and the public did not believe her party's claims that Mr McKay had acted as a lone wolf.

Committee members agreed that as the head of the Department overseeing the sale of the National Assets Management Agency's (Nama) sale of its Northern Ireland property loans portfolio, Mr O Muilleoir should stand aside because of what Mr Wells referred to as the "cloud of doubt".

He said Mr O Muilleoir had been Sinn Fein's "star performer" during the evidence sessions and questioning of witnesses and added: "It is absolutely unbelievable and inconceivable that the lead person who was questioning the Nama witnesses was unaware of what the previous chair was up to." And referring to the question asked of former President Richard Nixon in the Watergate scandal in the United States in the 1970s, he said "The question is what did he know and when did he know it?"

Ulster Unionist member Philip Smith said: "There's an awful lot more that needs to be investigated and discussed here rather than just who saw what tweet." TUV leader Jim Allister, however, claimed DUP members of the committee were keen to use the controversy over the 'back channel' to "bury" the committee's report on the Nama sale.

Claiming there was "faux anger" from the DUP, he added: "Some are very anxious to throw the baby out with the bath water."

Ms Ruane, meanwhile, reiterated that Mr O Muilleoir had done nothing wrong and had been very open but DUP chair Emma Little-Pengelly warned the perception of the ability of committees to act objectively in their inquiries was at stake.

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