Top figures face Nama deal scrutiny
Top politicians, business and legal figures are being summoned before a parliamentary watchdog over an alleged £7 million offshore account linked to a massive property deal which was today branded a "dirty scheme".
Stormont's Finance Committee is probing the £1.1 billion sale of Northern Ireland assets owned by the Dublin government's "bad bank" Nama to a US investment firm last year.
The inquiry has been set up in the wake of explosive allegations levelled in the Irish parliament by independent TD Mick Wallace.
Using parliamentary privilege, Mr Wallace last week alleged that £7 million in an Isle of Man account linked to the deal was "reportedly earmarked for a Northern Ireland politician or political party".
Nama is the bank set up by the Irish government to clear property loans from bailed out lenders.
It and all private firms involved in the Northern Ireland assets sale have denied wrongdoing.
Mr Wallace was named by the Finance Committee today as one of the witnesses who will be called to give evidence, potentially as soon as next week.
Democratic Unionist Finance Committee member Paul Girvan said: "There is enough of a cloud hanging over this place (the Northern Ireland Assembly), with a view to everything that goes on, and now to have implications there is a politician potentially involved in what is a dirty scheme and potentially how that could impact upon how this institution is viewed, albeit probably not very well at the moment, I think it is vitally important that we move as soon as possible to get some resolution to the matter."
Mr Wallace's allegations in the Dail last Thursday related to the role one of Northern Ireland's major law firms, Tughans, played in the deal.
The Wexford TD claimed the cash in the offshore account was discovered during a routine internal audit by the Belfast solicitors following their work for the US buyers - private equity firm Cerberus.
Senior partners at Tughans said the money was diverted without their knowledge and has since been retrieved.
Representatives from Tughans are also to be called before the committee, as is one of its former managing partners, Ian Coulter - a senior lawyer who the firm said worked on the Cerberus/Nama transaction.
Among others expected to be called to give evidence is former Northern Ireland finance minister Sammy Wilson, as well as representatives from Nama and Cerberus.
Committee chairman Daithi McKay said: "The most important thing is to drill down and get to the details of this case.
"There is an issue of public confidence, there is an issue that has been raised in terms of some political involvement in this.
"We should not prejudge that, we should ask the questions, uncover who was involved, whether it was untoward or not and the only way to do that in my view is to identify now the parties that were involved, the parties that were privy to dealings regarding this Isle of Man bank account, those that were involved in the sale of the portfolio; to simply ask the questions that the public has so that we can restore public confidence and also bring some answers to the public, if necessary pass that on if there is some untoward actions identified by the committee."
The Finance Committee held an emergency meeting this morning to discuss the Project Eagle deal to sell Northern Ireland properties held by Nama.
Project Eagle and its 850 properties had a book value of £4.5 billion (6.3 billion euro).
Nama took control of it by paying banks 1.9 billion euro for the loans but then sold it to Cerberus for about £1.1 billion (1.5 billion euro) last June, at a loss of about 200 million euro.
On Thursday the parliamentary spending watchdog in Dublin, the Public Accounts Committee, will meet to decide when to bring in Nama bosses to quiz them on the sale process.
Others named today as potential witnesses to the Stormont Finance Committee probe include:
:: Frank Cushnahan and Brian Rowntree, two external members who sat on the Nama NI advisory committee.
:: Another US investment firm that withdrew from the bidding process, Pimco.
:: The Law Society, which regulates solicitors and is investigating events at Tughans.
:: Other legal firms that did work for Cerberus - Brown Rudnick and A&L Goodbody.
Mr McKay said: "A number of those players have said that they have nothing to hide, that they have not done anything untoward so there should be no issue with them attending the committee."
The chairman also stressed the committee has the power to compel attendance.
The Law Society of Northern Ireland tonight outlined details of its on-going investigation into the issue.
It also called on Mr Wallace or anyone else with "relevant information" on the deal to bring it to police on either side of the Irish border.
A spokeswoman for the Society said: "In January 2015, following a self-report made by Tughans, the Law Society commenced an inquiry into the circumstances which led to the resignation of Ian Coulter from Tughans. The Law Society has satisfied itself that any funds in question are secure whilst the investigation is on-going.
"The inquiry has been conducted in accordance with procedures designed to ensure the proper discharge of the Law Society's regulatory duties. These procedures are to safeguard the public interest. It is critical to protect the integrity of any investigation and fairness to all parties. The Law Society does not have a wider remit to investigate individuals who are not solicitors."
The Society said while Mr Coulter did not renew his practising certificate in January this year he remained on the roll of solicitors in Northern Ireland, and therefore remained subject to its regulations.
The spokeswoman added: "The Law Society calls for independent TD, Mick Wallace or any other person with relevant information, to make available to the PSNI and Garda Siochana all information or evidence he has to substantiate the new and serious allegations made by him in the Dail."