Thursday 29 September 2016

The Eagle has landed in a right old mess

The Government can't just shrug its shoulders about the stink from Project Eagle

Published 27/09/2015 | 02:30


We noticed three fellas doing a bit of complaining last week. Paddy Cosgrave, Johnny Ronan and Mick Wallace.

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Paddy complained to the banking inquiry about the lack of "infrastructure" in Dublin. He feels so strongly about it that he's just moved the annual chatter-party he organises - the Web Summit - from Dublin to Lisbon.

Which made the hotel, pub and restaurant owners only livid.

Developer Johnny Ronan complained that Nama is out to get him. He seemed to compare Nama to the Nazis. And that, by extension, made him a Holocaust victim.

Which made Alan Shatter only livid.

Mick Wallace complained in the Dail about alleged corruption in Project Eagle. He demanded an independent inquiry.

Which made the Government shrug its shoulders.

Sure, yizzer always demanding inquiries into things, said Joan Burton to Mick. Go away with yiz, ye feckin inquiry-demanders, Joan said in the Dail. Or words to that effect.

While these matters are of some concern to the media, the vast majority of us go about our lives without a thought for the Web Summit, Nama or Project Eagle.

Dublin's infrastructure is bad, said Paddy Cosgrave. Well, yes. Too few buses; hospitals under-resourced; Portakabin classrooms; no affordable childcare or housing, the homeless left to die on the street. Perhaps I'm wrong, but I don't think Mr Cosgrave has been prominent in agitation about this state of affairs. For him, infrastructure is reliable Wi-Fi and cheaper hotel rooms for his party guests.

Last year, Paddy did a bit of a rant about the "old dudes" who are holding back the country. It seems the RDS couldn't handle the Web Summit's Wi-Fi needs.

Ah, now, Paddy. Those old dudes have been running the Horse Show for about 150 years. And the annual gee-gee festival is somewhat more complicated than your little gathering, cool and all as you lads in the tech trade may be.

The way I see it, it was up to whoever was organising the Web Summit last year to ensure the requisite Wi-Fi was in place. That would be who, Paddy? That would be you, Paddy.

The tech trade likes to promote a cool image, but it's just a business. An outfit that accepts hundreds of thousands of euros from the State, then moves elsewhere when Lisbon offers a €1.3m sweetener. Just another self-interested business.

Just like the self-interested businesses that made a cash cow from eircom, and screwed up broadband development. Just like those who push up rents and push down wages.

But, then - whatever about efficiency and infrastructure, no one does whinging as splendidly as the Irish business classes.

Take Johnny Ronan. I read his statement to the Banking Inquiry. Nama, it seems, didn't treat him as he would have liked. It treated him like he was just a guy who owed a few hundred million.

Johnny ended his statement with "Arbeit macht frei", the slogan the Nazis hung above the entrances to the concentration camps. "Work sets you free."

Those like Alan Shatter who expressed outrage are right - the horrors of the camps should not be trivialised by comparison with the woes of a grumpy old businessman.

But, but, but . . .

We're dealing here with Johnny. And Johnny might have found the "Arbeit macht frei" maxim in a Christmas cracker. Johnny might well be right now asking his mates who's this Andrew Hitler from the Nasty Party, and what're these conciliation camps people talking about?

Or, perhaps I underestimate his interest in history. And Johnny does indeed think of Nama as a fascist outfit. And himself as the Anne Frank of Irish business.

Johnny is not the most sensitive among us. But that doesn't mean he's wrong to complain about Nama.

Much of his statement is business-speak. If it could be sold in tablet form it would dominate the sleeping pill market.

But Johnny is talking about a troubling subject: "Nama", his statement says, "by its founding legislation, was granted such wide-reaching and potentially unconstitutional powers that, unless it came under constant and careful scrutiny, it was always open to abuse."

That's true. And Johnny says that "certain individuals within Nama" decided to "take down" his business, "whatever the consequence and regardless of the cost to the Irish taxpayer".

That might be baloney. But it might be true. And when questions are raised about a powerful, unaccountable state body, Ronan is as entitled to protection as anyone else.

Mick Wallace raised questions about Nama again last week. Unlike Paddy and Johnny, Mick isn't griping about things that affect him personally. He's worried about damage being done to the public interest.

When Wallace prepares an intervention on an issue he is careful and convincing, and his detailed statements on Nama demand attention.

Nama, he complained, is selling off large packages of loans at cut-rate prices. It could get billions more if it sold smaller packages, but some claim that the Government wants money fast, even if it means selling ultra-cheap.

One deal, Project Eagle, saw the sale of Northern Ireland property loans with a par value of €4.5bn for £1.5bn. When things like that are happening, well, to quote my good friend Johnny Ronan, we need "constant and careful scrutiny", to ensure things are on the up and up.

Mick Wallace some weeks ago alerted us all to an alleged £7m package that fell off the back of the lorry, so to speak, while Project Eagle was going through. Now, he says that the American company that bought the loans, Cerberus, has been able to sell them "for double what it paid for them, in a very short period. Why could NAMA not do that?"

Wallace said, in the Dail last Thursday: "Nama sold Project Eagle to Cerberus for approximately 27p in the pound. The missing 73p has been picked up by the Irish taxpayer."

And he says that before Cerberus bought the loans, "a group of individuals went around to the big developers and asked them whether they would buy their loans back for 50p in the pound". And the builders, of course, said yes.

That's a startling allegation. It gets worse.

"However, they had to pay a fixer's fee. The £7m in the Isle of Man that we have been talking about was only for openers. A total of £45m has been paid to fixers."

And he says, "due diligence with Nama in Dublin for Project Eagle cost €1.8m", yet the same four weeks' work in the North cost €21m.

Now, here's the clincher. Wallace says that Nama is currently organising a sale, Project Arrow, "with a par value of €7.2bn, which Nama is threatening to sell for something in the region of €1bn. Given that Cerberus is under criminal investigation in two countries for Project Eagle, why has that company not been disqualified from Project Arrow? How, in God's name, can the Government tolerate that?"

Joan Burton stated the Government's position: "It is a Northern matter."

Our unaccountable Nama. Our money. But for some reason the Government is afraid to create a stink on behalf of taxpayers.

This is just plain wrong. What's the Government afraid of?

How bad does the stink have to get?

Sunday Independent

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