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Leader fends off questions with a straight bat despite tricky delivery

By Adrian Rutherford

Published 15/10/2015

Peter Robinson
Peter Robinson
Peter Robinson
Peter Robinson
Peter Robinson
Peter Robinson
Peter Robinson
Peter Robinson
Peter Robinson

For a moment Peter Robinson looked shocked and mildly offended.

"I don't have a memory problem," he snapped.

Daithi McKay had just suggested that minutes should have been taken on a key meeting in the months leading up to the Nama sale.

"Given your memory problems..." Mr McKay began, drawing the rather tetchy response from the DUP leader.

It seemed an unfortunate choice of words from the mild-mannered Sinn Fein MLA rather than a deliberate attempt to provoke.

Nevertheless, it was a rare moment of unease for Mr Robinson during an otherwise assured performance in front of Stormont's finance committee.

The First Minister had been one of the most anticipated witnesses to appear before MLAs probing Northern Ireland's biggest ever property deal.

Three weeks earlier, it was claimed he was set to benefit from a "success fee".

Mr Robinson used a lengthy opening statement to again strongly refute the allegations.

It marked the start of more than two-and-a-half hours of evidence. Sitting at one end of a large table in committee room 30, Mr Robinson remained assured as he dealt with a series of questions.

Most were fairly predictable.

Some of the most fiery exchanges involved Sinn Fein's Mairtin O Muilleoir.

It all began calmly enough.

"Are you First Minister today or Mr Robinson?" inquired the South Belfast MLA.

"You can call me Peter," came the reply. "But I am still First Minister."

Mr O Muilleoir then launched into a lengthy statement, during which he branded the Nama deal "corrupt" and "a dirty scheme".

After a minute or so, a bemused Jim Wells interrupted: "Is this a question or a speech?"

Still Mr O Muilleoir continued.

"Is this a question?" Mr Wells again enquired.

Finally, Mr O Muilleoir got to the point.

He challenged the First Minister - having established that he was, indeed, still First Minister - on his relationship with Ian Coulter and Frank Cushnahan.

Mr Robinson said he had previously viewed both as "pillars of the establishment".

Did he still view them in such high esteem following some of the claims made about Nama, Mr O Muilleoir queried.

"Do you feel disappointed in those two men?" he asked.

Mr Robinson straight-batted the question, just as he had a previous one, saying it was for the committee to form judgements, not him.

When Mr O Muilleoir enquired again, Mr Robinson responded: "I admire your tenacity".

He noted it was the third time Mr O Muilleoir had asked the same question in a slightly different way.

"I think it's inappropriate for me to speculate on these matters," he responded.

Mr O Muilleoir's Sinn Fein colleague Michaela Boyle was a little less difficult.

"Good morning First Minister, I hope you are keeping well," she said.

"Still ticking along," replied Mr Robinson, in a subtle reference to his recent heart problems.

The morning had started with a declaration from Emma Pengelly, one of two new DUP MLAs on the committee.

She proceeded to formally record her previous role as Mr Robinson's special adviser.

Otherwise this was a low-profile performance from Mrs Pengelly.

There was predictably gentle questioning from the DUP group.

Mr Robinson was asked by Ian McCrea whether the Cerberus deal had been a good one for Northern Ireland, enabling him to talk up the benefits of the orderly disposal of assets.

There was even some mid-game cheer-leading from another.

Towards the end of the session Mr Wells took to Twitter to praise how his party leader had handled the questioning.

"Very strong performance at Stormont's Finance Committee by First Minister Peter Robinson," it said.

The Tweet was reported by UTV - Mr Wells has blocked some journalists from his Twitter account.

Several times yesterday Mr Robinson referred to the demands of the First Minister's office.

In a partial defence to some hazy answers, he noted the amount of calls, discussions and meets and greets which he and Martin McGuinness face.

It is a demanding role and, with the Nama issue providing an unhelpful distraction to the ongoing political crisis at Stormont, there are likely to be difficult days ahead.

Yesterday, though, wasn't really one of them.

After a minute or so, a bemused Jim Wells interrupted: "Is this a question or a speech?"

Still Mr O Muilleoir continued. "Is this a question?" Mr Wells again enquired.

Finally, Mr O Muilleoir got to the point. He challenged the First Minister - having established that he was, indeed, still First Minister - on his relationship with Ian Coulter and Frank Cushnahan. Mr Robinson said he had previously viewed both as "pillars of the establishment".

Did he still view them in such high esteem following some of the claims made about Nama, Mr O Muilleoir queried.

"Do you feel disappointed in those two men?" he asked.

Mr Robinson straight-batted the question, just as he had a previous one, saying it was for the committee to form judgments, not him. When Mr O Muilleoir enquired again, Mr Robinson responded: "I admire your tenacity."

The morning had started with a declaration from Emma Pengelly, one of two new DUP MLAs on the committee.

She proceeded to formally record her previous role as Mr Robinson's special adviser.

Towards the end of the session Mr Wells took to Twitter to praise how his party leader had handled the questioning. "Very strong performance at Stormont's finance committee by First Minister Peter Robinson," it said.

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