Belfast Telegraph

No Stormont pressure over property portfolio, says Noonan

Finance Minister Michael Noonan has insisted there was no political pressure from Stormont over the controversial sale of a £1.2 billion ( 1.4 billion euro) property portfolio.

Anyone looking for evidence of political interference in the sell-off by the Republic's bad bank Nama to US investment fund Cerberus two years ago was going down a cul-de-sac, he said.

"No-one ever attempted to put political pressure on me," Mr Noonan told a parliamentary watchdog in Dublin which is investigating the sale.

Last week, Nama chairman Frank Daly suggested cross-border diplomatic concerns had played a part in the sale.

The toxic assets agency was influenced chiefly by commercial gain but also the political sensitivities involved at the time and "reconciled the two", he said.

Mr Daly also said removing prominent Belfast businessman Frank Cushnahan from his role as a Nama advisor - on the appointment of the Democratic Unionist Party - would have provoked cross-border tensions.

But before the Public Accounts Committee, Mr Noonan said there were legitimate and obvious concerns in Belfast that a fire sale of the properties could damage the Northern Ireland economy.

Nama would always come up during cross-border ministerial meetings, he said.

But he insisted Stormont leaders were "perfectly in order" to express fears about the impact of a sell-off on the construction sector and never sought to influence him.

"Nothing that the Northern Ireland politicians did in my mind contributed to reducing the price," he said, adding he had no commercial role in Nama.

A probe into the so-called Project Eagle sale by the Republic's Comptroller and Auditor General found Nama undervalued loans associated with the 800 properties.

It said US investment fund Pimco, which pulled out of an earlier bid, alerted Nama to a "success fee" or fixer payment of £15-£16 million (17-18 million euro) for three parties behind the scenes.

Pimco said the money was to be shared equally by Mr Cushnahan, Brown Rudnick, a US law firm, and a managing partner of Tughans, a Belfast law firm subcontracted to assist in the deal, the report found.

Mr Cushnahan has denied any wrongdoing.

The Project Eagle deal with Cerberus has been dogged by scandal for more than a year, including £7 million linked to it being found in an Isle of Man bank account.

Former managing partner of Tughans, Ian Coulter, resigned after it was unearthed.

Mr Noonan confirmed he became aware in March 2014 of the alleged fixer fees in the failed Pimco bid.

But he said he had no power to halt the sales process continuing with the other bidders, once Pimco pulled out because of the revelations.

"I have no authority to interfere in a commercial decision on the sale of property," he said.

In any event, he said there was no evidence that such an intervention would have been in the best interest of the Irish taxpayer.

"And I am still of that view," he added.

Mr Noonan said he has full confidence in both Nama and the Comptroller and Auditor General, despite their differences on the price the Project Eagle portfolio should have reached.

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