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Stormont's Finance Minister Mairtin O Muilleoir 'no questions to answer' over Jamie Bryson Nama coaching claims scandal

By Lesley-Anne McKeown

Stormont's Finance Minister Mairtin O Muilleoir has insisted he has no questions to answer over a party colleague's controversial contact with a witness to an inquiry examining Northern Ireland's biggest property deal.

Mr O Muilleoir said he was "totally chill-axed" about attempts to link him to the controversy that forced the resignation of Daithi McKay, the former Sinn Fein chairman of the Assembly's Finance Committee.

He said: "Whether I am mentioned two times or 200 times I had no knowledge of the communications."

Mr McKay apologised and quit as an Assembly member for North Antrim after private Twitter messages published in the press showed him communicating with loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson ahead of his appearance before the committee's inquiry into the Nama loans deal.

Sinn Fein worker Thomas O'Hara was also suspended by the party, accused of coaching Mr Bryson before he made explosive claims to the finance committee about the efforts of Ireland's bank for bad loans to dispose of its Northern Ireland portfolio to US investors.

Mr O Muilleoir added: "I had no knowledge of the communications, no hand, act or part in the correspondence or exchange between misters Bryson, O'Hara and McKay."

During a lengthy appearance before the Assembly's finance scrutiny committee, the Sinn Fein minister repeatedly batted away questions from DUP chairwoman Emma Pengelly.

He said: "What part of no involvement with, no part in, no knowledge of does the committee, with all due respect, not understand?"

Mr O Muilleoir branded some of the questions "a wee bit silly" and at one point, stated: "I think I have answered that one, let's move on to question number three."

The Minister said he only learned about the back channel while on holiday in the Basque Country, it was claimed.

He also told MLAs he not know Thomas O'Hara and was unaware whether the activist had been employed by Sinn Fein.

"I am a blank slate on this one," said Mr O Muilleoir.

"I have no knowledge of who Thomas O'Hara is or isn't.

"I do not believe I have ever met the guy. I do not believe I have ever had any contact with him; I certainly never heard of him until this story broke."

Mr Bryson went before the committee to name former Democratic Unionist leader Peter Robinson in connection with the case.

The then first minister has strongly denied seeking to benefit from the agreement involving US investors and the National Asset Management Agency (Nama).

Political rivals had called for Mr O Muilleoir who was a Sinn Fein member of the committee at the time to stand aside.

But he hit back: "I am totally relaxed, totally chill-axed about this.

"I am not in any way stressed or concerned about this matter because what I have said has proven to be right."

"On this issue of trying to usurp or subvert the role of the committee or trying to prepare witnesses; trying to have a discussion outside the room with witnesses; trying to prep witnesses; all that, I am afraid, on this particular affair I had no involvement with."

Mr McKay's fall from grace was precipitated by claims in Belfast newspaper the Irish News about his contact with Mr Bryson.

The Sinn Fein leadership has denied knowing anything of the back channel contacts.

Mr O Muilleoir told MLAs he did not believe anyone had been "scape-goated".

In the wake of the controversy 18 Sinn Fein members left the party, including Paul Maguire, a member of Mid and East Antrim council.

"You have a choice of falling on your own sword or trying to brazen it out. I think he made the right decision. I think it was his decision to make.

"If it hurts my credibility if people resigned in north Antrim so be it."

The deal two years ago between Nama and US investment giant Cerberus, involving the £1.2 billion sale of a Northern Ireland property loan portfolio, has been dogged by controversy after £7 million linked to it was found in an Isle of Man bank account.

Critics have claimed the arrangement included multimillion-pound fixer fees.

Nama was established in Ireland at the height of the financial crisis to take property-linked loans off the books of bailed-out banks.

It sold 800 property loans to Cerberus, a multibillion-pound fund.

All parties involved in the 2014 transaction have denied wrongdoing.

Ms Pengelly described the evidence session as a "bit rocky" at times.

She said: "Clearly there are serious issues here and people are very concerned."

The start of the lengthy meeting at Parliament Buildings was delayed for over an hour after an intervention from the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

Detective Superintendent Kevin Geddes, from the PSNI's Serious Crime Branch, said: "Police do not wish to impede in any way the business of the Assembly and will endeavour to progress our enquiries as quickly as possible.

"The request was made as it was considered to be inappropriate at this time to have parliamentary scrutiny of events which are the subject of a criminal investigation by police."

Meanwhile, it also emerged that transcripts of the Twitter conversations were also sent to Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister the night before they were printed in the press.

Mr Allister said he had not immediately disclosed the documentation because he did not believe it differed from what was already in the public domain.

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