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Ex-finance minister Simon Hamilton raised Nama issue in Michael Noonan meeting

Published 23/07/2015

Former Northern Ireland finance minister Simon Hamilton
Former Northern Ireland finance minister Simon Hamilton

The first item on the agenda of a former Northern Ireland finance minister during a meeting with his Irish counterpart was the Brown Rudnick approach to purchase Nama property loans, a watchdog said.

Simon Hamilton raised the matter with Michael Noonan in September 2013, documents disclosed to Stormont's finance committee revealed.

Nama is the "bad bank" set up by the Irish government to clear property loans from bailed-out lenders.

It and all private firms involved in the £1.1 billion Northern Ireland assets sale have denied wrongdoing. Brown Rudnick is a US law firm which represented successful bidders Cerberus.

At a Stormont finance committee meeting chairman Daithi McKay said: "So the incoming minister, the first point he is raising with Michael Noonan in the meeting, is questions around the correspondence that Sammy Wilson (his predecessor) sent in June about Brown Rudnick.

"There does seem to be a continuation of that particular issue being a priority for the sitting minister."

Nama sold the portfolio to US investment firm Cerberus last year.

Allegations were levelled in the Dail recently by Independent TD Mick Wallace.

Using parliamentary privilege, Mr Wallace alleged that £7 million in an Isle of Man account linked to the deal was "reportedly earmarked for a Northern Ireland politician or political party".

A lawyer involved has denied the money was intended for a politician or relative of a politician.

Mr Hamilton's predecessor Sammy Wilson, minister in the powersharing Executive at Stormont, had previously written to Mr Noonan.

Mr Wilson wrote: "I believe there would be advantages in pursuing these proposals (outlined by Brown Rudnick) for both the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive."

Mr McKay said that was an extraordinary statement for the former finance minister to make.

He asked: "Should he have been involved in that deal on behalf of a particular purchaser or interested party?"

The witness, Department of Finance and Personnel senior civil servant David Sterling, declined to voice an opinion.

He failed to comment on some matters because they are under criminal investigation by the National Crime Agency.

He said Mr Wilson suggested names for a Northern Ireland Advisory Committee to Nama. Those included businessman Frank Cushnahan, who was appointed, and senior DFP civil servant Richard Pengelly. Another member of the committee, Brian Rowntree, was put forward by someone else in the Executive, Mr Sterling added.

Brown Rudnick had written to Mr Wilson saying two clients were interested in buying the loan book from Nama.

One partner in the law firm was Tuvi Keinan.

A Nama spokesman said Mr Keinan previously worked for Morgan Stanley bank when it was the successful bidder for a Nama loan sale which closed in March 2012. The loan portfolio related to assets located in Britain.

"We understand that this was Mr Keinan's only involvement in a Nama loan sale before joining Brown Rudnick.

"This loan sale was openly marketed by Savills. Ninety interested parties engaged with Savills. Twenty three parties submitted first-round bids and Morgan Stanley was the ultimate acquirer.

"Nama has no control over what people put in their CVs or what statements they make to impress the market but, as is clear from the above, the loan portfolio referred to by Mr Keinan was fully openly marketed and was not sold off-market.

"Brown Rudnick has never represented or advised Nama on any loan or property portfolio sale and, to our knowledge, its only involvement in any Nama-related loan or property portfolio sale was as adviser on the buy side of the Project Eagle loan sale."

Mr Sterling said as far as he knew the Department of Finance had no role in drawing up a memorandum of understanding that was sent from the first minister's office to Nama during the loan sale process.

He said his knowledge of the memorandum came from "social media".

Mr McKay said he would be inviting Mr Wilson and Mr Hamilton to give evidence to the inquiry when it meets again in two weeks' time.

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