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On the trail of the third man in Nama 'coaching' furore... but he proves as elusive as a good word from the natives for Northern Ireland's politicians

Ivan Little hits the streets of Portglenone in a bid to seek out local plasterer Thomas O'Hara, the suspended Shinner in eye of Assembly's 'Brysongate' storm

Published 25/08/2016

Ivan Little in the Co Antrim village of Portglenone yesterday
Ivan Little in the Co Antrim village of Portglenone yesterday
Ivan Little in the Co Antrim village of Portglenone yesterday
Thomas O'Hara
Portglenone
Local resident Tom Moody
Local Resident Helen Shields

I sought him here; I sought him there; I sought the elusive Portglenone plasterer everywhere.

But, rather appropriately in light of Thomas G O'Hara's profession, my efforts hit a brick wall yesterday.

Not that I'd gone into the search for the "third man" in the Jamie Bryson/Daithi McKay "coaching" controversy with any grout expectations.

Which was just as well, as many people in the bustling market village on the banks of the Bann claimed they knew nothing about Portglenone's man of the moment.

The media have been on the trowel-wielder's trail since his friend and Sinn Fein colleague Daithi McKay resigned as an MLA after it was revealed that the politician had advised loyalist blogger Bryson on how to give his evidence to a Stormont committee he was chairing on the Nama property scandal last year. Leaked Twitter messages also showed that an account in the name of Thomas G O'Hara was brought into play to give information through a back channel to Bryson, though the flag protester has said he believed that it was McKay who was actually tipping him the wink.

After the tweets hit the fan, Sinn Fein said that it wasn't aware of McKay's solo run, and he was suspended from the party.

At first it appeared that, as for O'Hara's role in giving republicans scarlet faces, the party had overlooked what he did. But he, too, was soon gone with the wind, suspended just like McKay had been the day before.

The fast-rising Rasharkin MLA issued a resignation statement acknowledging his "inappropriate, ill-advised and wrong" contacts with Bryson, but from O'Hara - whose official role in Sinn Fein hasn't been made clear - there has come not a word.

Yesterday a party spokesman at Stormont said, as O'Hara had been suspended pending an investigation, it wouldn't be acting on his behalf as far as any interview requests were concerned.

But the spokesman added it was his understanding that O'Hara wouldn't be talking to the media.

Yesterday it might just have been easier to find Lord Lucan out for a canter on Shergar than it was to track down Thomas G O'Hara in Portglenone.

One man gave me an address, but there was no one in the house and no confirmation from anyone that O'Hara even lived there. Several plasterers' firms in the area denied having him on their payroll.

And in picturesque village, where the historic Wild Duck Inn is a landmark, the hunt for O'Hara was becoming a wild goose chase.

Beside the marina on the tranquil waters of the Bann, families were enjoying picnics in the sunshine and kayakers were preparing to set off on the river.

But it appeared that Thomas G O'Hara had been left to paddle his own canoe in the murkier political waters in Belfast.

"Never heard of him," said one man near the landmark bridge over the Bann.

And that was one of the more polite responses to questions about the mystery man in Portglenone, which looked like an unlikely setting for a political intrigue.

Not far from the river, refurbishment work is under way at two churches, but rebuilding faith in the political institutions 40-odd miles away in Belfast won't be quite so easy.

In the village's Diamond one elderly man who was waiting for a bus told me: "Them boys up at Stormont annoy me. The whole lot of them. I'm not interested in them, and they're not interested in me either."

The man, who didn't want to be named, said the latest row at the Assembly involving two Sinn Fein members from the area didn't surprise him.

Several business people said it was more than their jobs were worth to broach controversy in what is a mixed village.

But 74-year-old Tom Moody, who has just returned to Co Antrim after 28 years in Orange County in southern California, wasn't quite so reticent.

"I have no time for the politicians. What have they done for us? You only have to look a few miles away at Ballymena where Gallaher's and Michelin have shut down with so many job losses.

"They've done very little to stop Ballymena being turned into a ghost town.

"But I know there's a determination among people in Portglenone to keep this place alive - with or without the idiots at Stormont.

"I thought Donald Trump was bad in the States until I saw the likes of them in Belfast."

Local woman Helen Shields, who said she voted for the DUP, added she wasn't a fan of Daithi McKay or Sinn Fein, and she insisted that she tried to avoid watching politicians on the news.

"I don't bother much, but my husband would scowl at them on the television," she said.

"He says they get away with too much and they do nothing for us."

Several residents, however, expressed their regret that McKay had resigned as an MLA.

One man said: "He was one of the better politicians in this area and he worked really hard for the people.

"I didn't agree with his stance on opposing loyalist band parades in Rasharkin.

"But I'm not convinced that he was a one-man show about the Nama committee.

"It probably went right to the top in Sinn Fein and he's been made the fall guy for the rest of them.

"I just hope that when all the fuss has died down he can come back to politics."

As for Thomas G O'Hara, he said: "I assume Sinn Fein have told him to get offside for a week or two.

"He's probably up in Donegal keeping out of the road."

Certainly, there's been no sign of him on social media.

His Twitter account went private as soon as the row over the "coaching" of Bryson erupted and my request to follow him has so far gone unanswered.

Elsewhere online, a number of people have put up pictures of O'Hara, who regularly accompanied McKay as he went canvassing before elections.

One poster, who uses the Twitter name Big GAA Hits, put up a photograph of O'Hara and another man and said: "I'm doing better than the media. I found the elusive plasterer @thomasgohara #DaithiGate."

Another tweet featured a 'Where's Wally' drawing and added "Would Thomas G O'Hara please stand up".

In Rasharkin, meanwhile, yesterday there was no sign of the former MLA.

One local newspaper - the Ballymena Guardian - published an upbeat story about what he had been doing just before he was forced to resign.

The article told how the MLA had become a social worker for the day.

He spent the morning working alongside teams helping children and adolescents with mental health problems in Antrim, and in the afternoon he saw how social services were coming to the aid of older people with a range of problems.

Afterwards, the Sinn Fein politician said he had gained "great insights" into the valuable work that social workers do.

The newspaper printed a picture of a smiling McKay on page 6, while on the front page there was extensive coverage of his fall from grace and the search for his successor.

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