Thursday 21 September 2017

Minister says council is in talks to buy Westport loans

Westport house
Westport house

Donal O'Donovan and Kevin Doyle

Loans linked to Westport House estate, a popular tourist attraction in Taoiseach Enda Kenny's Mayo constituency, have been excluded from a massive Nama sale following an intervention by the Government.

Hundreds of people attended a public meeting in Westport Town Hall on Wednesday as fears grew locally that the loans would be sold to an international 'vulture fund'.

Last night, US fund Cerberus was named as preferred bidder for Nama's Project Arrow, a €6.25bn portfolio of mainly problem property loans bundled up for sale in a single lot

But loans connected to Westport House estate, an important tourist destination in Mayo, have been pulled from the deal in recent days and are instead set to be bought in a deal backed by the State.

There had been calls to halt the Nama sale entirely pending the outcome of UK criminal and parliamentary investigations into the fallout from Cerberus's earlier €1.6bn purchase of Nama's Northern Ireland loan portfolio, dubbed 'Project Eagle'.

The Northern Ireland loans sparked a massive cross-border controversy after claims made in the Dáil by Independent TD Mick Wallace, who alleged that Stg£7m (€9.9m) in an Isle of Man account had been earmarked for a Northern Ireland politician or party for facilitating the deal.

Lady Sheelyn Browne, who manages the estate with her sister Karen, at Westport House, Co Mayo. Photo: Keith Henegha
Lady Sheelyn Browne, who manages the estate with her sister Karen, at Westport House, Co Mayo. Photo: Keith Henegha

The case is being investigated by the UK's National Crime Agency.

Both Nama and Cerberus have denied any wrongdoing.

And Nama last night named Cerberus as preferred bidder for the latest €6.25bn of loans owed by 302 borrowers and secured on 1,906 properties.

Two-thirds of the debt is linked to sites outside Dublin. The sale is Nama's biggest yet.

Mr Wallace told the Irish Independent that the Government should stall the sale.

"These are all small players, all Irish and 90pc of the properties are in the Republic. It was a bad idea for the Government to allow them to be sold in the first place and then as one big block so nobody in Ireland could be in the running for them.

"We're selling a huge part of Ireland to people who have only one incentive and that's profit. Now that's not a crime but it's a sin."

Fianna Fáil's Michael McGrath condemned the sale. The decision to continue with large-scale disposals excluded most buyers and was handing massive influence in the economy to the handful of US firms big enough to buy from Nama, he said.

Nama chairman Frank Daly defended the sale.

"The price achieved for this challenged portfolio, in which just 2.5pc of the loans are performing, meets the Nama board's expectation of the proceeds that could have been realised from the management and sale of over 1,900 individual assets if Nama had worked them out over a three- to five-year workout period," he said.

Cerberus said it was a good deal for both sides.

However, not all of the Project Arrow loans are being sold.

Nama confirmed that loans tied to the Westport House estate in Co Mayo had been pulled from the sale.

The agency is in talks to sell the debt to Mayo County Council, which may need money from the Government to fund the purchase.

Tourism Minister Michael Ring, a Mayo TD, confirmed to the Irish Independent that he had helped facilitate meetings between Nama and the county council in relation to the lands at Westport House.

"I'll continue working with the council and hopefully we can tie this up in the next few months.

"This has to be maintained in public ownership for the tourism sector and the benefits it has for Westport, Mayo and Ireland," he said.

"The Government is looking at how to hold on to historical buildings and this is certainly one to be protected. It cannot be allowed go into the private sector."

The loans are not secured on Westport House, but on the surrounding 440-acre estate. Nama said other sites were also excluded from the sale.

Irish Independent

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