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Finance minister Mairtin O Muilleoir: I will not be stepping aside

MLAs have called for minister to step aside to allow for investigations into Jamie Bryson 'coaching' allegations

By Jonny Bell

Published 23/08/2016

A special meeting of Stormont's finance committee takes place to discuss claims that a Sinn Féin member coached a loyalist blogger before giving evidence to the Nama inquiry. Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
A special meeting of Stormont's finance committee takes place to discuss claims that a Sinn Féin member coached a loyalist blogger before giving evidence to the Nama inquiry. Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
A special meeting of Stormont's finance committee takes place to discuss claims that a Sinn Féin member coached a loyalist blogger before giving evidence to the Nama inquiry. Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

Finance minister Mairtin O Muilleoir has said he will not be stepping aside to allow for investigations in to claims Jamie Bryson was "coached" ahead of his appearance at the Stormont finance committee during its Nama probe last year.

The Stormont finance committee convened a special meeting to discuss the allegations which led to former chair Daithi McKay resigning as an MLA.

It was claimed Mr McKay and another party member coached a witness before the loyalist blogger gave evidence to MLAs investigating the £1.3bn Nama sale of its Northern Ireland property portfolio.

Questions have been raised over Mr O Muilleoir's role in the scandal. He was a committee member at the time and has denied any knowledge of the communications or any involvement.

As well as the committee calling for the minister to attend a hearing, MLAs also said the minister should step aside for the investigation into the scandal.

Mr O Muilleoir said in a statement on Tuesday afternoon: "There is no basis for me to step aside as Finance Minister and I have no absolutely intention of doing so."

It followed a statement from Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness who said Mr O Muilleoir enjoys his "full support".

He said: "Mairtin O Muilleoir enjoys my full support as finance minister and he will not be stepping aside on the basis of calls from opposition parties, much less calls from the DUP."

Opening the two-hour long meeting on Tuesday chair Emma Pengelly said the committee and its procedures were "paramount to upholding integrity of the institutions" and that there needed to be an understanding of what the finance minister knew at the time.

During Tuesday morning's meeting MLA Jim Wells said the committee's work had been undermined and Mr O Muilleoir was "complicit" and that the committee should demand the minister attend.

"It is inconceivable Mr O Muilleoir did not know of messages," he said.

Sinn Fein's Catriona Ruane said the minister would have "no difficulty" cooperating with the committee as he had "nothing to hide". She was, however, concerned that the committee was "crossing a line". She argued that the committee may be investigating the conduct of an MLA which was the role of the Assembly Commissioner.

TUV MLA Jim Allister and the SDLP's Gerry Mullan also raised concerns over the role of chair Emma Pengelly given how her husband provided evidence to the committee on the Nama deal.

Mr Mullan said: "There is just a question mark over the integrity of the chair, which is what I am concerned about."

However, she rejected this.

"I come to this with completely clean hands," she said.

As well as asking the finance minister to step aside the committee is also to write to Mr O Muilleoir to ask him to provide all communications he received in relation to "witness coaching" and to attend a hearing. It is also to write to Daithi McKay to ask him to attend a hearing.

Chair Pengelly said that it was right that Mr O Muilleoir has not been proven to have had been involved in wrongdoing and his appearance in front of committee would be for him to "clarify his actions".

When asked if Jamie Bryson should again attend, the chair said to wait to see the outcome of their requests for information. She said she was concerned witnesses could use the committee for "entertainment purposes".

 

The UUP's Philip Smith said speed was of the essence in their investigations "in order to help restore the public's confidence".

Below is how the committee's meeting unfolded:

And it ends: committee to meet again in two weeks. Meet again on Wednesday, September 7.

Philip Smith says important to see everything progressed as soon as possible. "Important for public confidence," he says.

Emma Pengelly says wait to see outcome of requests which committee is already making. She says she is concerned witnesses could use committee for "entertainment purposes".

Philip Smith now asking should a request to be made to Jamie Bryson to attend?

Emma Pengelly asking if Irish News published all the material and suggested writing to paper for to obtain it all.

Gerry Mullan says question mark over chair Emma Pengelly's integrity in matter. She responds that this is about claims of tampering with witnesses. "I come to this with clean hands," she says.

Emma Pengelly says role of inviting Mr O Muilleoir and Mr McKay and others a fact-finding exercise.

Catriona Ruane voices her concern that committee is stepping into the territory of the Assembly Commissioner's role.

Committee votes to request Daithi McKay to attend hearing and also provide explanation of his actions.

Committee to ask minister to appear in front of hearing.

Committee resolves to ask minister to step aside for duration of any meeting.

Committee to write to minister to provide all communications with previous Chair Daithi McKay - or anyone else - on witness appearances.

Gerry Mullan "annoyed" at Ms Ruane's "Party politicking" allegations. Given its about public office, he says, "questions totally appropriate."

Chair Pengelly says right that Mr O Muilleoir has not been proven to have had been involved in wrongdoing and his appearance in front of committee would be for him to clarify his actions.

Catriona Ruane says committee needs to make sure it doesn't overstep its mark in terms of investigating conduct of MLA. Says MLAs involved in party politicking.

Jim Wells says committee needs to "demand" finance minister attend a hearing, not request as chair had put it. "We need to show him we are serious," he says.

Investigation needs to be "whiter than white" says Jim Allister and Chair Emma Pengelly "would have perceptions to deal with" after her husband gave evidence to last committee. To restore public confidence both Mr O Muilleoir and Ms Pengelly can not be apart of the investigations, he argues.

"We've seen Sin Fein denials in the past," he says.

Mr Allister says he "suspects" that DUP members of committee may be hoping this issue helps to "bury Nama inquiry" from previous mandate.

"Maybe an element of faux anger," he says, "some may be keen to throw the baby out with the bath water."

Jim Allister says interesting reading in Hansard that Mr O Muilleoir said Jamie Bryson "would be able to help".

"How did he know this?" asks Mr Allister.

"Don't believe for one second author of emails was Mr O'Hara," says Jim Allister, "But clear they thought Mr O Muilleoir would play cooperative role."

TUV leader Jim Allister says committee process has been "severely bruised". Again he repeats that there are questions to be answered by all concerned, including the committee clerk at the time.

Gerry Mullan says the minister "can not possibly continue".

Sinn Fein's Catriona Ruane up next. "We need to let the person with the remit to do the job, to do the job and that is the Assembly Commissioner," Says Ms Ruane in relation to the back channel.

She says the minister has done "nothing wrong".

"Can't accept no one [other than Mr McKay and Thomas O'Hara] knew of lines of communication," says Paul Girvan. "I am questioning all witnesses now."

The DUP's Paul Girvan is next up.

"In order to restore confidence," says Jonathan Bell, "I can't conceivably see how the minister can not step aside."

From the papers it "appears minister is given advice on when to ask his questions," says MLA Bell, "need to who knew what.

"Allegations strike at core of democratic process," he says.

Jonathan Bell of the DUP is next.

Ms Pengelly says wait to all members have their say and given ongoing investigations need to have tightly framed investigation.

Mr Smith asking if committee should proceed with "formal investigation" and call both minister and Daithi McKay.

Ms Pengelly says need to have "outcome focused" hearings. She says as chair she is objective and committee could look at processes as well as the claims.

Mr Smith refers to Emma Pengelly's role on committee and how it was questioned before - he suggests Assembly could set up an ad hoc committee to probe claims. Chaired by non-Executive party's MLA.

The UUP's Philip Smith says minister must step aside to help restore public confidence. "There needs to an inquiry... there needs to be a wider investigation," he said.

SDLP's Gerry Mullan is next. He outlines "significant questions" for the finance minister. Chair recommends minister must meet committee.

Mr Wells says Finance Minister should step aside as he is minister responsible. He said: "Committee's work has been undermined and he is complicit.  

Jim Wells: "Inconceivable Mr O Muilleoir did not know of messages". "What did he know and when did he know it," he says.

Mr Wells refers to Watergate - says there has been collusion.

Mairtin O Muilleoir - says Mr Wells - was at times lead interrogator during Nama hearings.

Chair has handed over to comments. Jim Wells MLA is first.

Committee procedures paramount to upholding integrity of the institutions as Ms Pengelly says it must examine what Finance Minister knew.

Ms Pengelly expresses her disappointment at the subject of the meeting.

Chair Emma Pengelly outlines the agenda: One item, the allegations that Jamie Bryson was coached ahead of his appearance.

Finance committee to begin at 10.30am. You can watch it here.

                                                                                                                         

Calls for Mairtin O Muilleoir  to stand down over Nama ridiculous, says Sinn Fein's McGuinness

By Adrian Rutherford

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said he has total confidence in Finance Minister Mairtin O Muilleoir as the row over the Nama inquiry 'back channel' continues.

The Finance Minister faces mounting pressure as Stormont's finance committee - now chaired by DUP MLA Emma Pengelly - meets to discuss the scandal today.

But Mr McGuinness last night backed his party colleague. He tweeted: "I have total confidence in @newbelfast (Mr O Muilleoir's Twitter handle) as Finance Minister. Calls for him to step aside are ridiculous. He will continue to do his job."

Last week, Sinn Fein MLA Daithi McKay resigned amid claims he and another party member coached a witness before he gave evidence to MLAs investigating the £1.3bn Nama sale.

Twitter messages were sent to loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson ahead of a committee meeting where he claimed Peter Robinson was to benefit financially from the deal - allegations the former First Minister strongly denies.

Mr McKay quit within hours of the messages being leaked on Thursday. It has been claimed he was sacrificed to protect more senior Sinn Fein figures - including Mr O Muilleoir, who was a member of the finance committee at the time and who is named in one of the messages.

Mr O Muilleoir said he had no knowledge of any communications between Mr McKay and Mr Bryson.

"The attempts to link me to the contacts between Daithi McKay, Thomas O'Hara and Jamie Bryson are no more than petty party politicking," he insisted.

"They have absolutely no basis in truth or fact. I had no part in or knowledge of these inappropriate communications.

"I will co-operate readily and fully with any investigation.

"I am absolutely confident the outcome of any such investigation will confirm that I was totally unaware of these contacts until they were publicised this week."

But his refusal to stand aside pending an independent investigation sparked criticism. UUP leader Mike Nesbitt said it would damage public confidence in Stormont.

"He had the opportunity to do his bit to help restore public confidence. In a straight choice between the greater good and self-interest, he answered, 'me, me, me!" he said.

Alliance MLA Naomi Long said a full investigation was needed to determine if anyone else knew.

"The Finance Minister should step aside, given he was named by the Twitter account in question, as we need to be clear who else on the committee was aware of that back channel."

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