Friday 30 September 2016

Mick Wallace has done the State service over Nama

Shane Ross

Published 27/09/2015 | 02:30

Mick Wallace
Mick Wallace

My elderly mother was, until recently, a devotee of RTE's Oireachtas Report. It gave her an excuse for some gentle upbraiding of her unruly son. Most of her good-humoured criticism targeted my less-than-perfect dress in the chamber. Although I have never expected to win the 'Best-dressed TD of the Year' award, I found the maternal chiding more wounding than anything Enda Kenny could fling across the floor. One day she asked me the name of that "very interesting-looking person" sitting beside me.

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Her tone was mildly disapproving. I grasped in an instant who she meant. The sight of Mick Wallace sitting in the Dail was a bit of a culture shock to a conventional citizen.

Personally, I too would prefer that he looked less exotic because his appearance tends to provoke more comment than his performance.

Mick has had a make-over recently. His wild hair has been shortened a little. His T-shirts are almost orthodox. He still looks more like legendary scarecrow Worzel Gummidge than Martin Mansergh ever did.

Yet the content of his Dail contributions has been nothing short of riveting. In recent times, he has done the State some service.

Wallace has led the case against Nama in both jurisdictions on this island. He has used Dail privilege to reveal many unsavoury allegations about parties linked to the Nama deal. He has forced parliamentarians North and South to circle the wagons and set up parallel inquiries into the murky sale of Nama's Project Eagle portfolios.

Not surprisingly, the inquiries are heading for the buffers. Sceptical TDs might be forgiven for thinking that the buffers have been skilfully constructed to halt the inquiries' gallops. Wallace's claim in July that over £7m had been discovered in an Isle of Man account after Nama's sale of its Northern Ireland portfolio was only an opening salvo.

He added the sensational accusation that northern politicians were lined up for kickbacks. Last Thursday, he upped the ante, alleging that 'fixers' fees' of £45m had been lashed out in the background.

Astonishingly, the level of cross-border co-operation is invisible. Partition is playing straight into the hands of those who are feeling the heat. Both probes are running into the sand as procedures, politicians and civil servants poke their fingers into the picture.

Nama appeared before the Dail Public Accounts Committee (PAC) in July. They will be back next week. The issue at stake is how Nama, with its self-proclaimed expertise in property and banking, managed to sell the entire Northern Ireland portfolio (on the books at€5.7bn par value) for a pittance of just €1.6bn.

The buyer, US investment firm Cerberus, is already showing a projected profit on its purchase from Nama.

Was Nama's eye wiped? Or worse?

Next Thursday, Nama is back at PAC. It may be an uncomfortable session for the boys from Grand Canal Street. Nama will plead that the sale may not look good at today's prices but was on the button at the time and will say that large portfolios always sell at a big discount if they are being disposed of in one lot.

I have heard the same excuse rolled out scores of times by fund managers who have made a dog's dinner of a big deal.

If Cerberus is already anticipating healthy profits from selling off the Project Eagle portfolio piecemeal, why could Nama not have done the same? It could. And it didn't. At a minimum, it stands indicted for gross incompetence.

No one doubts that Nama cocked up badly. Put at its most charitable, Nama (and by extension the Irish taxpayer) has been stuffed.

Yet there appear to be efforts in train by the establishment to protect Nama from ridicule and others from scrutiny. Nama has refused to co-operate with the Northern Ireland Parliamentary Inquiry.

It claims that it is answerable only to PAC, insisting that the guys across the Border can read PAC transcripts and go whistle for the rest. The inquiry in Northern Ireland has hit the buffers.

Worse still, the Minister for Finance Michael Noonan has refused to respond to pleas North and South to instruct Nama bosses to make the trip to Belfast.

The official line is that he has no statutory power to do so. Yet Mr Noonan appoints the board, a body that includes at least one Fine Gael trustee and a former Fine Gael activist from his native Limerick.

The board's refusal to open the Nama files to this important investigation inflames fears that Nama might have more to hide than its incompetence.

The official line holds tough that Nama is answerable to our own PAC. Last week, Tanaiste Joan Burton steered Mick Wallace in the same direction, a course he is reluctant to take. He is likely to appear before the Northern Committee. When they have got over their convulsions at his appearance, they may make limited progress.

As a member of PAC, I would like Wallace to give us all the evidence behind his allegations. He seems to think that we are investigating with our hands behind our backs.

He has a case: the ability of PAC to dig deep into such controversial matters has been obstructed by legal, procedural and political obstacles in recent times.

Last Thursday, just as we prepared for this week's meeting with Nama, an hour before Wallace made his new claims in the Dail, a directive was read out at PAC from the all-powerful Dail Committee on Procedure and Privileges.

The clerk of PAC was no longer to be allowed to speak in public session. It appears that one or two of the clerks of committees, including PAC's excellent Ted McEnery, have been showing signs of independent thought. In the eyes of superior mandarins, they may have gone native. Free-thinking mandarins are being muzzled.

Presumably, McEnery will be allowed to whisper advice to chairman John McGuinness, but no one will be able to challenge or clarify because they will not know what is being said. Transparency is, yet again, a victim of political necessity.

No wonder Joan Burton wants Mick Wallace to go to PAC. The noose is tightening around PAC's neck. Ever since it blew the lid on the charity scandals, it has been under the cosh.

And a similar pattern is emerging at the Northern Ireland Inquiry. Last month, the head of Northern Ireland's civil service, Malcolm McKibben, warned his colleagues of the dangers of the parliamentary inquiry prejudicing police investigations. A familiar story.

Already the permanent secretary of the North' s Department of Finance has been blocked from giving evidence by his minister, Arlene Foster. The chairman has been provoked into declaring that there are efforts "to stymie this inquiry".

The efforts are likely to succeed. Similar civil servant power play is breaking out, North and South. Muzzles are emerging from the armoury.

Which brings us back to Mick Wallace, my mother and middle Ireland.

Many may not like his T shirts or his utterly unkempt hair. Yet he has outed a gang of insiders.

Sunday Independent

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