Nama: A day of high drama, yes, but not one to threaten Executive
McGuinness’s denial that he knew of alleged McKay-Bryson plot is designed to placate First Minister, says Alex Kane
So, here’s the question: did Sinn Fein’s Daithi McKay conspire with Jamie Bryson to inflict maximum political and personal damage on Peter Robinson? If so, was the Sinn Fein leadership (by which I mean Martin McGuinness) aware of the conspiracy? And, if he was, was it part of a coordinated plan aimed at toppling and replacing Robinson as First Minister?
Last September, when Bryson was giving his evidence to the Assembly’s finance and personnel committee, the relationship between the DUP and Sinn Fein was at rock-bottom, the worst it had been for a number of years.
On September 10, following the fallout from the earlier murders of two republicans in Belfast, Peter Robinson had stood aside as First Minister and announced the serial resignations of DUP ministers from the Executive.
The British and Irish governments expressed their concern that the “power-sharing institutions are on the edge of the precipice”, while Sinn Fein claimed that the DUP was being reckless with the political process.
Now, viewed from that perspective, it is possible that Sinn Fein might have wanted to hurt Robinson. They would also have calculated — as had a number of people — that at least some of Bryson’s leaks about Nama were coming from DUP sources, and that those sources were very keen for Mr Robinson to step down.
But that raises two entirely different questions: whether Sinn Fein believed that Robinson’s replacement would be easier to work with; and if they thought that a messy civil war within the party would lead to an early Assembly election, divisions within unionism and the possibility of them sneaking Martin McGuinness into the First Minister’s role.
But all of that strikes me as too fanciful. Far too many ifs, buts, maybes, risks and wildcards. So, I am inclined to believe McGuinness when he says that he, personally, “had absolutely no knowledge of this exchange, or contact ... (and that) I am now entirely satisfied that Sinn Fein had no knowledge of any such contact”.
Not to believe him is to believe that Sinn Fein, at the highest levels, cut a deal with Jamie Bryson and, in so doing and knowing there was a Twitter trail, left themselves open to his being able to reveal the deal at a time of his choosing.
Yet, given the nature of Sinn Fein and their reluctance to allow “outsiders” to have any input into their business, I would be surprised if such a deal would ever have been sanctioned.
That said, it is very clear that Daithi McKay, in his role as chairman of the finance and personnel committee, and at least one other member of Sinn Fein, Thomas O’Hara, did come to some sort of arrangement with Bryson before he appeared
before the committee.
Interestingly, Bryson, while denying that he was “coached” by Sinn Fein, did say: “If, as is alleged, Sinn Fein were manipulated into assisting my passage to the (finance and personnel committee), that’s a matter for them.” Is that a suggestion from Bryson he ‘played’ McKay, rather than the other way round?
What is clear is that McKay doesn’t seem to comprehend the scale of what he allegedly did. Describing it as inappropriate, ill-advised and wrong doesn’t even come close.
The Assembly committees, which monitor and shadow the Government departments, are the bedrock of accountability and democratic responsibility. They have to be trusted to do that job with integrity and ruthless honesty.
Allegedly setting up a back-channel with a witness, coaching, choreographing and assisting him in the presentation of his evidence and appointing a third party to act as a conduit between the witness and himself was a very clear breach of the rules governing his conduct as an MLA and as a committee chairman.
What it did was to give the witness a very obvious political and media advantage: wrong under any circumstances, but particularly damaging when the person at the heart of the allegations — which is what they were and what they remain, unproven allegations — was the First Minister.
It wasn’t merely inappropriate and ill-advised, it was monumentally stupid and hugely damaging to the credibility of the committee dealing with one of the most important political stories since the restoration of devolution. McKay, an otherwise talented and usually canny politician, had no alternative other than to resign as an MLA.
Has any damage been done to the DUP/Sinn Fein relationship, though? It has been pretty good since the Fresh Start deal last November and there is growing evidence that the absence of the UUP, SDLP and Alliance from the Executive has pushed the Big Two closer together. Indeed, they’ve almost become protective of each other.
Last week’s joint letter to the Prime Minister about their common concerns over Brexit was another signal of their willingness to push together, rather than pull apart.
And McGuinness’s immediate and unambiguous statement of knowing nothing about the McKay/Bryson arrangement, followed speedily by McKay’s resignation as an MLA and his suspension from the party, was done, in part at least, to reassure Arlene Foster.
So far, most of the DUP response has been measured. Lord Morrow, party chairman, has talked about the “dirty tricks operation” against Peter Robinson, but isn’t pointing the finger at McGuinness at this stage. Mervyn Storey — one of the DUP’s North Antrim MLAs — settled for “anyone who has been involved in this disgraceful episode must face the full consequences”.
Sammy Wilson was, as expected, more forthright — understandable, I suppose, after describing the committee inquiry as “incompetent and biased” last December. But he, too, stopped short of accusing McGuinness of having given McKay the imprimatur.
In a tweet yesterday, Jamie Bryson said, “Disgraceful SF throwing McKay to the wolves. This went to the very top. They knew”. If he has hard evidence of that claim — the sort of evidence that disproves McGuinness’s statement of denial — now would be the time to present it.
But in the absence of that evidence, or of a statement from Arlene Foster that she isn’t satisfied with McGuinness’s response, it seems likely that political life will continue much as before.
It clearly isn’t in the interests of either Sinn Fein or the DUP to bring the institutions to the brink of crisis again, particularly with the ongoing uncertainty over Brexit.
But, when all is said and done, this remains a hugely important political story. An MLA has been forced to resign (a very rare occurrence in Northern Ireland since 1998). Reforms will be required to ensure it can never happen again.
All contact between committee members and witnesses will have to be monitored and recorded. And there will have to be an official inquiry which may throw up other issues.
A very interesting day, obviously, but not the sort of day which threatens the stability of the process.