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Mystery of missing messages between Jamie Bryson and Sinn Fein revealed at inquiry

Finance Minister Mairtin O Muilleoir denies involvement as he faces Nama coaching probe, while UUP chief accuses First Minister of sticking head in sand over republicans

By Noel McAdam

Published 06/10/2016

Mairtin O Muilleoir arrives to face questions from finance committee yesterday
Mairtin O Muilleoir arrives to face questions from finance committee yesterday
Emma Little Pengelly yesterday
Jamie Bryson
Daithi McKay

The existence of "missing messages" between loyalist Jamie Bryson and Sinn Fein has been revealed amid claims of an attempt to mislead a Stormont inquiry into Northern Ireland's biggest property deal.

The missing extracts came to light at a heated meeting of the Assembly finance committee yesterday.

TUV leader Jim Allister revealed there were some differences between the original messages published in the Press - which led to the resignation of former Sinn Fein finance committee chairman Daithi MacKay - and others he had received.

Mr McKay has already quit as an Assembly Member after private Twitter messages showed him communicating with Mr Bryson ahead of his appearance before the committee's inquiry into the Nama loans deal.

Mr Allister said he had not immediately disclosed the documentation because he did not believe it differed from what was already in the public domain.

Committee chair Emma Little Pengelly said it was "very serious" that it appeared there had been a deliberate bid to mislead the investigation.

The DUP chair said it was clear looking at the full transcript that there were missing messages - and one appeared to refer in part to Finance Minister Mairtin O Muilleoir "and what he might or might not do".

However, Mr O Muilleoir told the committee that he was "totally chill-axed" about attempts to link him to the controversy.

"Whether I was mentioned two times or 200 times I had no knowledge of this. I had nothing to do with this correspondence. The first I learned was when I was on holiday in the Basque region," he said. "I will not be stepping aside, I will be stepping up."

The committee had met for almost an hour beforehand in closed session after which it emerged Mr Allister had presented the emails sent to his office in mid-August, apparently from Mr Bryson.

But behind closed doors there had also been a discussion of a request from the PSNI's Serious Crime Branch cautioning MLAs to be careful about their discussions.

Detective Superintendent Kevin Geddes said: "Police do not wish to impede in any way the business of the Assembly and will endeavour to progress our enquiries as quickly as possible.

"The request was made as it was considered to be inappropriate at this time to have parliamentary scrutiny of events which are the subject of a criminal investigation by police."

The questioning of Mr O Muilleoir went ahead an hour late, when it emerged one specific email message showed that Sinn Fein worker Thomas O'Hara - who had been in contact with Mr Bryson - was told the committee could be given the name of a source, but it could be "any old name". Mr O'Hara was suspended by Sinn Fein, accused of coaching Mr Bryson before he made explosive claims to the finance committee about the efforts of Ireland's bank for bad loans to dispose of its Northern Ireland portfolio to US investors.

Mrs Little Pengelly said there was "potentially collusion" between Mr Bryson and "someone potentially employed by Sinn Fein" in "misleading the committee in relation to their evidence".

Quizzed for more than two-and-a-half hours, Mr O Muilleoir repeatedly insisted he had no "hand, act or part" in the communications between Mr O'Hara and Mr Bryson.

"I had no contact with anyone involved in this particular affair. None, zilch, nada," the Sinn Fein minister insisted. "I'd love to help you with this inquiry but I am a blank slate on this."

He also said he did not know Mr O'Hara and had never received any briefing from him.

He clashed with the DUP committee chair, telling her: "If you want to hear about Mr O'Hara, you should invite him in." And he later cautioned the chair against putting words in his mouth.

The chairwoman then referred to correspondence from Mr O'Hara which included the phrase: "Try and get Mairtin to say something in the meeting."

She added: "Your name is mentioned by a party colleague twice in this."

Mr Bryson gave evidence this time last year to MLAs investigating the £1.3bn Nama sale of its Northern Ireland property portfolio when he claimed then First Minister Peter Robinson had gained personally. Mr Robinson strongly rejected any claim he had sought to benefit in any way from the deal.

Yesterday Mr O Muilleoir was asked by former Enterprise Minister Jonathan Bell whether he had any financial connection "direct or indirect" through his businesses with any witness to the Nama inquiry. Sinn Fein's John O'Dowd asked what Mr Bell's question had to do with the coaching allegations.

The deal two years ago between Nama and US investment giant Cerberus, involving the Northern Ireland loan book sale, has been dogged by controversy after £7m linked to it was found in an Isle of Man bank account. Critics have claimed the deal included multi million-pound fixer fees. All parties involved in the transaction have denied wrongdoing.

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