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Nama: Top civil servant told to come up with better answers in two weeks

Stormont finance committee discusses its inquiry into the Nama property portfolio sale

By Adrian Rutherford

A top civil servant has been given two weeks to come up with answers after being severely criticised over his responses to questions on a massive property deal.

David Sterling was appearing before MLAs probing the £1.3billion sale of Nama's Northern Ireland assets.

Mr Sterling, who is permanent secretary in Stormont's finance department, angered MLAs after declining to answer a series of questions.

Numerous times he said he would prefer to respond in writing to a question rather than answer verbally to MLAs.

The lack of answers prompted committee chair Daithi McKay to hit out at a "delay, delay, delay" approach.

He later branded Mr Sterling's evidence "one of the worst performances" he had encountered from a permanent secretary.

Before adjourning the hearing, Mr McKay told Mr Sterling he would be recalling him in a fortnight's time when, he added, he would expect answers.

The clashes came during a meeting of Stormont's finance committee, which is probing the massive Project Eagle deal.

The 850-property portfolio was bought by a US investment firm in April 2014.

It is now being investigated by the National Crime Agency after explosive allegations levelled in the Dáil by Mick Wallace.

The independent TD alleged that £7m in an Isle of Man account linked to the deal was earmarked for a Northern Ireland politician.

Today's committee meeting heard around 100 minutes of evidence from Mr Sterling.

However, he faced accusations that he was washing his hands of the matter.

Asked by Sinn Fein MLA Mairtin O Muilleoir if the sale of the Nama portfolio was a mess, he replied: "I've no reason to believe it was a mess", adding it was a matter for Nama and the Irish government.

Pressed by Mr O Muilleoir, he said: "I'm not going to offer an opinion on that".

Asked then by Mr O Muilleoir if it was a scandal, Mr Sterling replied: "Again, I don't think it would be appropriate for me to comment on that."

Mr O Muilleoir replied: "You are the permanent secretary of the department which is most intimately involved in the management of our finances."

Mr O Muilleoir then told him: "You're washing your hands of it entirely".

At one stage, when asked about a memorandum of understanding sent by Peter Robinson to Nama, Mr Sterling appeared confused and said he had learned of the document through social media.

Earlier, concerns were expressed over the absence of information held by DFP on appointees to Nama's Northern Ireland advisory committee.

Mr McKay suggested the appointments were more than the Finance Minister writing names on "the back of a fag packet".

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