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Finance Minister urged to step down by committee pending deal probe outcome

Published 23/08/2016

Mairtin O Muilleoir has so far resisted pressure to temporarily step down
Mairtin O Muilleoir has so far resisted pressure to temporarily step down

A Stormont scrutiny committee has called on Northern Ireland's Finance Minister to stand aside pending the outcome of a probe into a party colleague's backchannel contact with an inquiry witness.

Mairtin O Muilleoir has so far resisted pressure to temporarily step down in the wake of the controversy that forced the resignation of Daithi McKay, a former Sinn Fein chairman of the Assembly's Finance Committee.

That committee broke from summer recess to hold an emergency session on Tuesday to discuss the furore around Mr McKay's handling of its inquiry into allegations of impropriety around Northern Ireland's largest ever property deal.

Mr McKay apologised and quit as an Assembly member last week after admitting "inappropriate" communication with loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson ahead of his appearance before the committee.

Private messages were exchanged between Mr Bryson and the Twitter accounts of Mr McKay and Sinn Fein party worker Thomas O'Hara. Both republicans have been suspended by Sinn Fein.

The contacts were made before the loyalist made explosive claims to the finance committee about the efforts of Ireland's bank for bad loans - the National Asset Management Agency (Nama) - to sell its huge Northern Ireland portfolio to US investors.

Mr Bryson went before the committee to allege that former Democratic Unionist leader Peter Robinson was set to benefit from the £1.2 billion transaction - a claim the then Democratic Unionist first minister vehemently denied.

The Twitter messages published in the press last week made reference to Mr O Muilleoir - then a member of the finance committee - indicating how he might intervene during the evidence session involving Mr Bryson.

While Mr O Muilleoir has insisted he had no knowledge of the backchannel, and Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness has given him his full backing, during Tuesday's hastily convened committee hearing a number of members questioned the Finance Minister's denials.

A majority of members voted to send a letter to the minister asking him to stand down from his ministerial role while an investigation by the Assembly's Commissioner for Standards takes place.

The sole Sinn Fein member present at the hearing - Caitriona Ruane - voted against the move.

DUP committee chair Emma Pengelly said the minister should temporarily leave office to ensure public confidence.

"Any request for the Finance Minister to step aside is not a judgement as to whether he is guilty of any allegation," she said.

Mrs Pengelly added: "Ultimately this is a request for him to step aside from the committee - it will be a decision for him. I think there is much for him to reflect on."

The committee also agreed to call Mr O Muilleoir to come before members to answer questions.

The 2014 deal between Nama and US investment giant Cerberus has been dogged by controversy after £7 million linked to it was found in an Isle of Man bank account.

Critics have claimed the arrangement included multimillion-pound fixer fees.

Nama was established in the Republic of Ireland at the height of the financial crisis to take property-linked loans off the books of bailed-out banks.

It sold 800 Northern Ireland-based property loans to Cerberus, a multibillion-pound fund.

All parties involved in the transaction have denied wrongdoing.

Mrs Ruane said Mr O Muilleoir had done nothing wrong.

She claimed the committee had no remit to investigate the conduct of Assembly members and accused fellow members of treading on the territory of Standards Commissioner Douglas Bain.

"I won't be supporting writing to the Finance Minister asking him to resign - he has done nothing wrong," she said.

"He has been very open and accountable in relation to what he has said."

The Sinn Fein MLA was the minister's lone defender at the committee table, as other members took it in turn to question his position.

DUP member Jim Wells said there was a "cloud of doubt" hanging over his denials.

He said Mr O Muilleoir had been Sinn Fein's "star performer" when it came to questioning witnesses before the Nama inquiry.

"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," he said.

Referencing Watergate, the MLA added: "The question is what did he know and when did he know it?"

Ulster Unionist member Philip Smith said a wider inquiry was required which went beyond Mr Bain's investigation of Mr McKay.

"There's an awful lot more that needs to be investigated and discussed here rather than just who saw what tweet or who was involved in particular Twitter conversations," he said.

The SDLP's Gerry Mullan said the public did not believe Sinn Fein's insistence that Mr McKay was acting as a lone wolf.

"The actions of Sinn Fein during a committee investigation has impacted in a major negative way in public perception and public confidence in the whole political process and I think there does need to be serious clarity and there are a number of serious questions that do need to be answered," he said.

Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) leader Jim Allister described the revelations as "appalling", but said the controversy could not be used by the DUP to "bury" the committee's inquiry report on the Nama sale.

"I believe you would not be justified in burying it or putting it in the bin," he said.

"These are atrocious things that happened and should not have happened but some are very anxious to throw the baby out with the bathwater on this issue."

After the hearing, Mr McGuinness again made clear he had total confidence in Mr O Muilleoir.

"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," he said.

Mr O Muilleoir also issued an emphatic statement making clear he would not be leaving his post.

"There is no basis for me to step aside as Finance Minister and I have no absolutely intention of doing so," he said.

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