Monday 16 January 2017

Wallace claims on Nama deal are a real hornets' nest

Published 27/09/2015 | 02:30

Last week in the Dail Mick Wallace alleged that around €45m in payments were made to 'fixers'
Last week in the Dail Mick Wallace alleged that around €45m in payments were made to 'fixers'

The circumstances surrounding the sale of the Nama Northern Ireland property portfolio get more and more curious. What we have so far is an allegation, made by TD Mick Wallace in the Dail, that £7m (€9.5m) lodged in an Isle of Man bank account was earmarked for a number of people who had some role in the deal, including a politician.

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This matter is the subject of a criminal investigation in the North and all of the relevant parties, from politicians, to solicitors to the purchasers of the portfolio, deny any wrongdoing.

Regardless of the outcome of that investigation, lots of interesting facts have fallen out of the woodwork which do not prove any wrongdoing - but have given a useful snapshot into what was going on around this deal.

For example, it emerged that a former member of Nama's Northern Ireland Advisory Committee, Frank Cushnahan, was working with one of the bidders and was in line to receive a £5m success fee if that bid had been successful. When Nama was told of this arrangement, it led to the withdrawal from the bidding of that company.

Solicitor Ian Coulter of Belfast firm Tughans did lodge a sum of around £7m into an Isle of Man bank account, which pre-empted his departure from the firm.

The money belonged to the firm and was retrieved. Coulter has denied any wrongdoing and the matter is being investigated by the Northern Ireland Law Society.

Details of meetings between First Minister Peter Robinson and representatives of the buyers have emerged. Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness claimed that he was not aware of these meetings. That is contested by the DUP.

And last week Mick Wallace alleged that around €45m in payments were made to what he called "fixers", whereby some of the borrowers in the portfolio were sounded out on buying back their loans from the new owners at around 50p in the pound, even before the portfolio had been sold.

Wallace's allegations have stirred up a hornets' nest on both sides of the Border -and regardless of whether any wrongdoing occurred, they have provided fascinating insights into some of the circumstances around this deal.

However, in order for political corruption to have taken place, individuals in Northern Ireland would have needed either influence on, or control of, the Nama sale process. Lots of people might have been seeking the inside track, but if they couldn't influence who won the bid to buy the loan book, then it is very hard to establish what was actually going on.

And there is no evidence to date that anybody based in the North influenced the sale process. For example, Nama had a Northern Ireland Advisory Committee. It could pick up snippets of information, but was not in charge of the sale process.

Its role was to make recommendations and provide advice on general matters affecting property in Northern Ireland. It had zero powers.

It looks like a talking shop aimed at placating unionist concerns about an agency of the southern state controlling so much of the Northern Ireland property market.

In early 2014, a Memorandum of Understanding was sent by Peter Robinson's office to the Department of Finance in Dublin. It was an agreement on how one prospective bidder, Pimco, would deal with debtors should it be successful in acquiring the loan book.

This seems utterly bizarre, given that Stormont had nothing to do with the sale process.

In fact, Nama chairman Frank Daly referred to this memo when he gave evidence to an Oireachtas committee hearing in July.

He said it looked like some kind of debtors' charter that he wouldn't agree with and it had no status or standing whatsoever. He just ignored it.

Everyone north of the Border appears to have been locked out of this transaction - and unless evidence emerges to contradict that, it is hard to see where the various investigations can go.

Nevertheless, Wallace has already done a huge public service by simply triggering the disclosure of events that really should have been more out in the open in the first place.

Aryzta sale sees Origin leave IAWS past behind

Origin Enterprises finally cut its last ties with the old mother ship of Aryzta, formerly IAWS, during the week.

Aryzta sold off its remaining 29pc shareholding in Origin through a market placing that yielded around €246m. Aryzta sold down the stake from 70pc as recently as May when it bagged €404m.

It is quite a 2015 haul for Aryzta.

Origin shares were trading at €8.25 when Aryzta sold in May but the stock has come down a bit from then on the back of concerns about this year's trading environment for the sector. The company saw its market capitalisation fall by €125m during the week after it announced a small increase in half-year profits, but short-term concerns weighed on the stock.

Aryzta chief executive Owen Killian will step down as chairman of Origin, which will be free to pursue its own growth strategy without the watchful eye of Aryzta.

Origin has come a long way and developed a good business strategy. The big challenge will be replicating and rolling out its business model in markets like Eastern Europe (where it has recently made some acquisitions) and further afield in places like North America.

Ironically as two former IAWS entities go their separate ways, another - One51 - is preparing its own stock market flotation which will make it the third international plc to come out of the old IAWS co-op.

Ryanair finally says 'no thanks' to the long haul

'If it ain't broke, don't fix it' applies to Ryanair right now. Few could be surprised that company chairman David Bonderman told shareholders during the week that it had no plans to launch a low-cost transatlantic operation.

Clearly, Ryanair has grappled with the idea for some time. It appeared as if getting access to the right planes was the only real obstacle. But I suspect there was more hesitancy about the plan than that.

Chief executive Michael O'Leary had talked about setting up a long-haul business under a different brand or umbrella to Ryanair. Perhaps if he had got Aer Lingus, he would have.

Given Ryanair's ambitious plan for passenger growth and the various other tailwinds giving it a huge profit boost right now, why bet anything on a new start-up risk? O'Leary, who seems to have been at least interested in going long-haul, recently painted a picture of how the airline business in Europe is changing. Long-haul operators will do long-haul and low-cost short-haul operators like Ryanair will stick to the knitting - and even feed people to those long-haul hubs.

Strangely, Ryanair shares dipped a little after the AGM. I thought the share price should have gone up on news that the company was 'shelving' the plan. Perhaps Bonderman was only confirming what the market had already suspected and priced in.

Still, it does leave an opening for O'Leary to pursue a long-haul flight of fancy when he does finally decide to call it a day at Ryanair.

It might also be a way to lose a chunk of that €1bn fortune he has built.

Perhaps he will just stick to the horses.

Sunday Indo Business

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