All eyes on Taoiseach as calls for Nama inquiry now too strong to ignore
Latest revelations the strongest argument yet for a cross-border probe, writes Shane Phelan
Published 10/09/2016 | 02:30
It was a grubby deal conducted by two men sitting on the plush leather seats of a blue Jaguar.
"There's Stg£40,000 in that and it's in bundles of two, Frank," said a rasping voice with a Co Down accent.
The words were spoken by property developer John Miskelly as he handed a bag of cash to Nama advisor Frank Cushnahan.
The date was August 17, 2012, and Mr Miskelly was paying the cash to Mr Cushnahan in a bid to get out from under Nama.
Mr Miskelly had once been one of the North's richest men, with a fortune in excess of €70m. But the economic crash left him in danger of losing valuable assets after multi-million pound loans ended up in Nama.
He was anxious to regain control but a major stumbling block was Nama's refusal to sell back the loans.
In return for the cash, Mr Cushnahan pledged to come up with a scheme to extract Mr Miskelly's loans from Nama, suggesting he would get the assistance of Nama's then head of asset management, Ronnie Hanna.
"Ronnie and I are thick as thieves," said Mr Cushnahan.
The extraordinary recording, which was made by Mr Miskelly, was aired this week in a BBC 'Spotlight' programme.
Mr Cushnahan never did live up to his side of the bargain and the Miskelly loans ended up being sold on elsewhere.
However, he would become a central figure in efforts to entice global investment funds to buy Nama's northern loan portfolio, known as Project Eagle. A bid by one interested party, Pimco, involved an agreement with then First Minister Peter Robinson, a close friend of Mr Cushnahan, which would have seen Nama debtors released from personal guarantees and allowed manage their properties.
It was, in the words of Nama chairman Frank Daly, a "debtors' charter".
The deal fell apart after Pimco informed Nama that Mr Cushnahan stood to earn a fee of Stg£5m if it was completed.
A rival investment firm, Cerberus, subsequently scooped the portfolio, once valued at €5.7bn, for €1.6bn.
Since then, many Nama debtors have cut deals with Cerberus.
But questions have been swirling since it emerged last summer that Ian Coulter, a Belfast solicitor and associate of Mr Cushnahan, diverted around Stg£7m from the deal to an offshore bank account.
There have been allegations that Mr Cushnahan, Mr Coulter, Mr Robinson, and two other men, were to benefit from the money. All have denied this.
The matter is being examined by the US Securities and Exchange Commission and is the subject of an investigation by the UK's National Crime Agency (NCA), which has questioned Mr Cushnahan and Mr Hanna.
But south of the border, there has been a curious reluctance from the Government or Nama itself to initiate any inquiry.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny has vacillated on the issue for some time now, refusing to say whether he will accede to calls for a commission of investigation.
This week, following the BBC programme, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin called for a meeting of party leaders. Mr Kenny said he would think about it.
The question now is just how many more revelations there have to be before Mr Kenny gives in. The 'Spotlight' recordings are being viewed by many as a tipping point.
The insinuation that Mr Hanna, once one of the seven topmost ranked executives in Nama, may have been involved in shady dealing is too serious to ignore. Mr Hanna has denied any wrongdoing and no actual evidence has been produced against him.
Nevertheless, his taped remarks link the Project Eagle controversy to the uppermost echelon of Nama.
For its part, Nama has stayed silent. There is no suggestion it has launched an internal inquiry into Mr Hanna, who left the agency in 2014, shortly after the Project Eagle deal was done.
There is considerable merit in the suggestion by John McGuinness, chairman of the finance committee, for a cross-border inquiry to establish the facts around the deal. His proposal is for parallel and cooperating judge-led inquiries with the same terms of reference on both sides of the border.
Such an inquiry could, without interfering with the NCA investigation, independently adjudicate on whether Nama executives and politicians acted honestly and with probity.
At this point in the unfolding saga, it is the minimum taxpayers in both jurisdictions deserve.