Belfast Telegraph

Stormont ministers 'out of their depth' over Nama deal

By John Mulgrew

Stormont ministers and senior civil servants were out of their depth and had "insufficient" advice to deal with the sale of Northern Ireland's biggest loan portfolio, a major parliamentary probe has revealed.

The damning report by the Stormont finance committee was set up following allegations of impropriety behind the scenes of Nama's sale of more than £1bn of Northern Ireland loans.

In Northern Ireland's biggest ever property deal, the Republic's bad bank sold the loans to US vulture fund Cerberus.

Issues were first raised amid a BBC Spotlight television documentary, which highlighted concerns that an advisor on Nama's Northern Ireland Advisory Committee was to receive a multi-million pound 'fixer's fee' for setting up the deal, known as Project Eagle.

The committee report says evidence suggests that "Executive ministers and senior departmental officials had insufficient professional advice to fully assess the strategic considerations" in relation to Nama's operations in Northern Ireland.

That includes the Project Eagle bidding process and "the interests of the various parties involved". It also said Nama's refusal to give oral evidence to the committee was "particularly unhelpful".

"Nama needed to be more open and accessible given the importance of the Project Eagle portfolio to the Northern Ireland economy".

It says there are "lessons to be learned" by the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP).

The report said "different aspects of the Project Eagle controversy could be seen as having caused reputational damage to DFP, the Northern Ireland Executive, the Irish Government and Nama".

It also says it requires oral evidence from a number of well-known business and political figures.

That includes Health Minister Simon Hamilton, former Nama advisor Frank Cushnahan, vulture fund Cerberus, along with property developers such as John Miskelly, Andrew Creighton and construction firm, the Lagan Group.

It also wants to hear from Gareth Robinson, the son of former First Minister Peter Robinson.

The probe is trying to establish the facts over a number of areas, including the Department of Finance and Personnel's relationship with Nama and the reasons for and rationale for the loan sale. The committee said it faced a number of challenges in its evidence gathering, including a "reticence on the part of some witnesses" to provide oral or written evidence.

It says it has now received more than two thousand pages of documents from "a range of sources".

Last month, a second BBC investigation accused businessman and former Nama advisor Frank Cushnahan of seeking corrupt payments in relation to the loan sale.

All parties involved in the £1.2bn transaction in 2014 have denied wrongdoing.

Belfast Telegraph