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Stormont department condemned over Nama inquiry 'snub'

Published 30/09/2015

Stormont's Finance Committee is examining the £1 billion-plus sale of Nama's northern portfolio
Stormont's Finance Committee is examining the £1 billion-plus sale of Nama's northern portfolio

A Stormont department's refusal to provide answers and documents to an inquiry into the controversy around Northern Ireland's largest ever property deal is a snub to the public, its chairman has warned.

Assembly Finance Committee chair Daithi McKay said the lack of information coming from the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP) on the £1 billion-plus sale of Nama's northern portfolio was "untenable".

Mr McKay said relations between the committee and DFP had reached "rock bottom" on the issue, and he added there is now a "strong case" for formally compelling the department to co-operate with the probe.

"The department have a number of responsibilities to this committee because this committee represents the public and the department are not only snubbing this committee they are snubbing the public in regard to the Nama review," he said.

The committee is probing the sale of the loans held north of the border by Nama after a claim was made in the Irish parliament that a £7 million payment diverted to an off-shore account was earmarked for a Northern Ireland politician.

Nama (National Asset Management Agency) is the so called "bad bank" set up by the Irish government during the financial crisis with the purpose of taking at-risk loans off the balance sheets of bailed out lenders.

US investment firm Cerberus bought Nama's huge Northern Ireland portfolio but the allegation made by independent TD Mick Wallace referred to legal fee payments related to the transaction.

Democratic Unionist leader Peter Robinson has vehemently rejected an allegation levelled before the Stormont Finance Committee last week that he was set to benefit from the deal.

All parties involved in the transaction have denied wrongdoing.

As well as parliamentary probes by the Finance Committee and the Dail's Public Accounts Committee, the UK's National Crime Agency is investigating the sale.

The committee inquiry is examining the role Executive ministers had in the deal, including former finance ministers Sammy Wilson and Simon Hamilton.

DFP permanent secretary David Sterling was heavily criticised by committee members when he declined to answer a number of questions during a hearing in July.

He was prevented from re-appearing before the committee two weeks later by Finance Minister Arlene Foster, who cited concerns over potentially undermining the ongoing police probe.

During the committee's latest meeting in Parliament Buildings, Mr McKay said a letter would be written to Mrs Foster outlining its concerns.

"Whereas Nama and others have sent us papers without any questions or queries, the department has been remarkably shy," he said.

"So if the department has nothing to hide they need to bring these papers forward.

"There is a huge public interest in what we are doing, quite clearly, and the public will ask questions and come to their conclusions, whether they are right or wrong, the more the department continues to pull down the shutters in regard to our review.

"So I think this is a hugely serious situation we are now in. The department is not co-operating with the committee, it hasn't co-operated since July of this year and this is a major issue of public concern."

The Sinn Fein MLA added: "It is an issue that needs addressed because, at the end of the day, it is the role of this committee to hold the department to account and I think they are in an untenable position in regard to this.

"I also think in terms of compelling them we do now have a strong case for compelling papers from the department and compelling the permanent secretary. We do not want to do that, quite clearly, we want to co-operate with the department and ensure there is a good working relationship.

"But at this moment in time, as far as I am concerned, the working relationship with the department on this issue is at rock bottom."

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