Law Society 'told not to discuss Nama criminal probe with Stormont committee'
Lawyers were warned not to divulge details about a billion-pound property controversy minutes before they appeared before a Stormont scrutiny committee, MLAs have heard.
The Law Society's Arleen Elliott revealed a senior figure from the National Crime Agency (NCA) made an eleventh hour telephone call and told them not to discuss the criminal probe into the sale of Northern Ireland assets by Nama (National Asset Management Agency).
She said: "We got a telephone call this morning before attending here from the deputy senior investigating officer in the NCA reiterating that we should not answer any questions in relation to this particular matter - in relation to the ongoing investigation in respect of Tughans and Ian Coulter's departure."
Belfast-based law firm Tughans was involved in the £1.1 billion deal between the Dublin government's "bad bank" Nama and US investment firm Cerberus last year.
Ian Coulter was a former senior partner of Tughans who resigned earlier this year.
The Stormont committee is looking into allegations made in the Irish parliament that £7 million in an Isle of Man account linked to the Nama deal was "reportedly earmarked for a Northern Ireland politician or political party".
Ms Elliott, president of the Law Society, said she had been left "hamstrung" by legislation and was unable to answer many of the MLA's questions.
However, she did insist they were carrying out a "rigorous and vigorous" investigation into the role of Ian Coulter but declined to be drawn on a conclusion date.
MLAs expressed frustration and dissatisfaction with answers provided and at one point Sinn Fein's Mairtin O Muilleoir said the hearing, at Parliament Buildings, should be suspended.
The South Belfast MLA also raised doubts about the identity of the NCA caller.
"Mr Birmingham, surely that is a made up name?" he said. "Why is the NCA making calls in relation to the investigation moments before we sit?
Later, he said the NCA and Mr Birmingham in particular should be called to give evidence in public.
Meanwhile, Law Society member Peter Cooper said he was "confident" they would be vindicated.
He said: "We are very confident that when the facts emerge and the investigations are open to scrutiny that our role will be vindicated and we will have been found to have regulated appropriately and robustly.
"We are confident about that."
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.
Ian Coulter has also consistently denied any wrongdoing and said no politician was ever to benefit from the Nama deal.