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Nama probe slams 'unhelpful' official Pengelly

Watchdog grills top civil servant as it emerges no record was kept of why he was made an advisor

By Lesley-Anne McKeown

Published 12/11/2015

Questions: civil servant Richard Pengelly
Questions: civil servant Richard Pengelly
Aghast: MLA Mairtin O Muilleoir

A top civil servant has faced fierce criticism over "vague" and "unhelpful" answers to a committee investigating Northern Ireland's largest ever property deal.

Richard Pengelly, who was a senior official at the Department of Finance until December 2012, told MLAs he could not recall specifics of meetings or discussions around the nomination of himself and two others to the Nama advisory board.

Nama is the so-called "bad bank" set up by the Irish government during the financial crisis to buy high-value loans off the books of bailed-out banks.

Stormont's finance committee is examining the £1.2bn sale of its northern portfolio to US investment firm Cerberus.

Sinn Fein's Mairtin O Muilleoir said: "It is not terribly helpful. The bits important to us - which is why the nominations were put forward - you can't help us with that except some assumptions."

The huge deal known as "Project Eagle" was thrust into the spotlight in the summer when Independent TD Mick Wallace used privilege in the Dail to allege a political pay-off. He claimed £7m in an Isle of Man bank account was "reportedly earmarked for a Northern Ireland politician or political party".

Political watchdogs on both sides of the border are examining the circumstances of the Nama sale while the National Crime Agency (NCA) has launched a criminal investigation. All parties involved deny wrongdoing.

Loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson, who gave evidence before the Stormont finance committee inquiry last month, has made a series of explosive claims about the sale, alleging corrupt conduct by First Minister Peter Robinson and a number of senior business, property and legal figures in Northern Ireland. All deny the claims.

The role of the Nama advisory panel was to liaise with officials in the Republic and to ascertain if sales would negatively impact on the Northern Irish economy, the committee heard. Names were put forward by former finance minister Sammy Wilson.

Mr O Muilleoir said it was "preposterous" minutes were not taken during the nomination process.

He added: "If I had to give it a score for transparency, accountability and being able to follow up in terms of the processes and practices, it is very poor.

"If it happened today in any department it would be an absolute disgrace if anyone would make a nomination to a body with intrinsic importance to our economy and had no consultation on the record that anyone can recall."

The SDLPs Dominic Bradley said: "These were quite important appointments and I would have expected that maybe you would have gone into more detail.

"In the context of the time when the minister quite often referred to, in the Assembly, and perhaps in this committee to the danger that he saw that Nama might initiate a fire sale and that might have quite dire consequences for the property market and indeed the economy in Northern Ireland."

Mr Pengelly hit back and claimed that the civil service would "grind to a halt" if minutes were taken of every conversation.

He said: "With respect, it was six years ago and I have done rather a lot in two different, very heavily loaded jobs since then, so my mind has been on other things.

"The perceived importance of the appointments has grown in the last year or two.

"At the time they were made they were not perceived, certainly in the wider community outside the little bubble that we operated with the south, of being of the strategic importance that they do now."

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