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Daithi McKay resignation over Jamie Bryson coaching claims: Sinn Fein accused of sacrificing one of its own MLAs over claims he coached witness for Nama inquiry

Demands for PSNI investigation in wake of claims that party's rising star was 'thrown to the wolves' in order to protect more senior figures

By Adrian Rutherford

Sinn Fein has been accused of throwing one of its top MLAs to the wolves over claims he coached a high-profile witness to the Nama inquiry.

Daithi McKay dramatically quit yesterday, hours after leaked Twitter messages were made public.

They appear to show how Mr McKay and another Sinn Fein member instructed loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson on what to say before he gave evidence to a key meeting of Stormont's finance committee.

More: Whatever the truth, losing McKay is a body blow that SF will struggle to recover from

The committee was investigating the £1.3bn sale of Nama's Northern Ireland assets to a US investment firm.

Mr McKay resigned, accepting that his conduct was "inappropriate, ill-advised and wrong".

And on Thursday night Sinn Fein said they would co-operate with any inquiry into the claims.

Party chief whip Caral Ni Chuilin said: “Sinn Fein will co-operate fully with any inquiry and I am totally confident that any examination of the facts will confirm that Sinn Fein had absolutely no knowledge of, or involvement in, these events."

But last night, amid calls for a PSNI probe, there were claims that Mr McKay had been sacrificed to protect more senior Sinn Fein figures.

DUP MP Sammy Wilson said the move had been designed to protect Finance Minister Mairtin O Muilleoir, who was a member of the finance committee at the time of the Bryson appearance.

More: Watch: Sinn Fein spin doctor Thomas O'Hara's ambitions captured in bizarre video      

He said: "The hasty departure of Daithi McKay from the political scene is an attempt by Sinn Fein to protect a more valuable asset in the form of Mairtin O Muilleoir.

"It is clear from the information which has come to light regarding the manner in which Sinn Fein ran the (finance) committee into the Nama deal that the current Finance Minister played an important and leading part in the strategy.

"Sinn Fein are obviously hoping that with McKay sacrificed this issue will die a death before the spotlight falls on a much more important political asset. If that is their strategy they are mistaken."

More: Huge number of unanswered questioned must be investigated by proper inquiry

Mr Bryson said Mr McKay had been "thrown to the wolves", claiming that the matter went "right to the very top". "I am absolutely clear in my mind that Daithi McKay is no lone wolf," he told the Belfast Telegraph.

"Daithi McKay has been very quickly sacrificed, in fact he was sacrificed within three hours.

"It must be the quickest resignation I can remember in politics after a story breaking.

"He was thrown so quickly under a bus to protect much higher figures in Sinn Fein who have their hands dirty on this."

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SDLP leader Colum Eastwood added: "Sinn Fein don't do lone wolves, they do scapegoats."

Mr McKay (34) had been an MLA for north Antrim since 2007, and was considered one of Sinn Fein's rising stars.

But his political career was in ruins last night after the leaking of Twitter messages between himself, Mr Bryson and Sinn Fein member Thomas O'Hara - who was also suspended by the party.

They relate to Mr Bryon's appearance before a meeting of Stormont's finance committee, which was probing the sale of Nama's Northern Ireland loan book.

More: Daithi McKay: SF may have a scapegoat, but this story is far from over

The 850-property portfolio was bought by Cerberus Capital Management in April 2014.

Last July independent TD Mick Wallace claimed that £7m in an offshore bank account linked to the deal had been earmarked for a Northern Ireland politician.

Mr Bryson told the committee that former DUP leader Peter Robinson was to receive a payment upon its completion - claims that the former First Minister has strongly denied.

Messages obtained by the Irish News and the BBC's Nolan Show show that on September 17, 2015 - a week before Mr Bryson's appearance before the committee - Mr McKay sent him a direct message.

It told Mr Bryson to follow a Twitter account in the name of Thomas O'Hara, who is understood to be a fellow Sinn Fein member.

The following day, a direct Twitter message from Mr O'Hara to Mr Bryson said: "You may only get 10-15 seconds on this before Daithi as chair has to pull you on it, so squeeze your best points on this into one to two lines and come straight to the point."

Mr Bryson denied leaking the messages himself, saying they were "illegally obtained".

Within hours of their publication, Mr McKay submitted his resignation.

"I acknowledge and accept that my contact with a witness to the finance and personnel committee's Nama inquiry in advance of his testimony was inappropriate, ill-advised and wrong," he said. "I apologise wholeheartedly for this.

"I want to be absolutely clear that my intention was not, as alleged, to coach the witness in question with regard to the substance of his testimony, but rather ensure that the inquiry had full access to the truth with regard to all the issues relating to the Nama scandal."

Mr McKay has also been suspended by Sinn Fein.

His resignation was announced by Sinn Fein's press office 14 minutes after Martin McGuinness said that he should "seriously consider his position as an MLA".

The Deputy First Minister said Sinn Fein did not have any knowledge of any alleged contact with witnesses. "I want to state categorically that I had absolutely no knowledge of this exchange or contact," he added.

"Having spoken to all relevant personnel in the Assembly, I am now entirely satisfied that Sinn Fein had no knowledge of any such contact."

But Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt said Mr McGuinness's denial was far from the end of the matter.

"Martin McGuinness's statement lacks the ring of truth," he added. "If one looks at the history of Sinn Fein statements, they always try to mask the truth - the Colombia Three, the Florida gun-running and the murder of Paul Quinn, to name but three.

"Three statements which subsequently proved to be false."

Mr Eastwood, meanwhile, said Mr McGuinness's denials would be "naturally met with extreme scepticism". "Our joint First Minister also fails to understand that Daithi McKay falling or being pushed on to his sword will not make this problem go away for Sinn Fein," he stressed.

DUP MLA Mervyn Storey said Mr McKay had no other option but to resign. "The speed of Daithi McKay's resignation may have shocked many, but it was clearly the only option available given the serious nature of the allegations," he added.

DUP chairman Lord Morrow said he would refer the matter to the PSNI for investigation.

And TUV leader Jim Allister said the Assembly's Standards Commissioner must investigate. He added: "Likewise any allegation to the PSNI of misfeasance in public office by Mr McKay must be rigorously examined."

Alliance MLA Naomi Long said only an independent investigation would restore public confidence.

An independent commissioner is already investigating former MLA Mr McKay's handling of the committee probe into the Nama scandal.

Gerard Elias, a senior civil servant from Wales, was drafted in after Assembly Standards Commissioner Douglas Bain refused to act on a complaint from the DUP's Sammy Wilson.

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