Belfast Telegraph

Police to probe 'political pay-off'

A criminal investigation has been launched into allegations of a political pay-off in a massive property deal in Northern Ireland.

Detectives are to probe 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.

Stormont's Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness welcomed the police probe and said a judicial inquiry may need to be established to examine the controversy. The Democratic Unionists also welcomed the announcement.

Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) commanders had been coming under intense pressure to act in the wake of explosive allegations levelled in the Irish parliament last week by independent TD Mick Wallace.

Using parliamentary privilege, Mr Wallace 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.

Announcing the investigation, Assistant Chief Constable Will Kerr, who is head of crime operations at the PSNI, said: "We believe that there is sufficient concern in relation to potential criminal activity, surrounding this property deal, to instigate an investigation.

"PSNI are now engaging with a number of other national and international law enforcement partners to consider how best to take forward this investigation."

It is understood the UK's National Crime Agency will be involved with the investigation and the PSNI are also set to liaise with the Garda in the Irish Republic.

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.

Ian Coulter, a former managing partner at Tughans who the firm said worked on the Cerberus/Nama transaction, has since left the company. Mr Coulter has not commented publicly on Mr Wallace's claims.

Reacting to the PSNI move, Mr McGuinness tweeted tonight: " This is very serious, necessary and welcome. Consideration will also be given to the establishment of a judicial inquiry."

A DUP spokesman said: "This is a welcome announcement and the appropriate step to deal with the serious allegations which have been made.

"Indeed, the First Minister (DUP leader Peter Robinson) called for such action by the authorities last week noting that accusations of criminal behaviour tarnish politics and should be fully investigated.

"We trust everyone concerned will cooperate fully with the PSNI team."

Stormont's Finance Committee and the Dail's Public Accounts Committee are also examining Mr Wallace's allegations about the deal, named Project Eagle, to sell Northern Ireland properties held by Nama. However, it is not clear if those parliamentary probes will be impacted or delayed now a live police investigation is on-going.

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, after rents and interest payments were factored in.

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