Saturday 22 October 2016

'He had power to make or break developers'

Ronnie Hanna, named in the 'Spotlight' probe, was the former head of Nama's asset management, writes Niamh Horan

Published 18/09/2016 | 02:30

Probe: Ronnie Hanna. Photo: Tom Burke
Probe: Ronnie Hanna. Photo: Tom Burke

Businessman Frank Cushnahan is the name on everyone's lips this weekend after he was secretly recorded accepting a £40,000 cash payment from a Nama borrower.

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But the bombshell recording, reported by BBC's Spotlight programme, has thrown another man into the centre of controversy: former head of Nama's asset management, Ronnie Hanna.

In the clip, Mr Cushnahan alleged he had influence over Mr Hanna and suggested that he would have Mr Hanna's assistance in getting the developer's loans out of Nama in return for a fee. "Ronnie and I are thick as thieves," he told the property developer.

In March of this year, both Mr Hanna and Mr Cushnahan were arrested on allegations of fraud by the National Crime Agency (NCA), which is investigating Nama's £1.2bn sale of its Northern Ireland property portfolio to US firm Cerberus, and released on bail. Mr Hanna, like Mr Cushnahan, has strenuously denied any wrongdoing, but if Mr Cushnahan's secretly recorded claims are true, it brings the scandal to the heart of Nama's headquarters in Dublin.

So who is Ronnie Hanna- and how much power did he wield over Irish property developers and their assets?

A graduate of Belfast's Queen's university, Mr Hanna (57) worked for 30 years in Ulster Bank, Belfast. He was said to have been "well thought of by senior bankers" and quickly moved into the world of credit when the crash hit in 2008, eventually working his way up to Head of Global Restructuring at the bank. Friends of Mr Hanna describe him as a typical "Northern Protestant".

He was seen as "one of the pillars of society" in the North. A source close to the BBC investigation told the Sunday Independent that both Mr Hanna and Mr Cushnahan were "very influential and big powerful players in Northern Ireland business and banking circles" and "go back over many years."

In 2010, Mr Hanna's career change from Ulster Bank to Nama raised eyebrows among lifelong friends. As a source explained: "We were all very surprised - it was a very leftfield move."

Mr Hanna immediately became central to Nama's operations in Dublin. He reportedly had the power of 'life or death' over developers.

He has overseen the sale of assets belonging to Ireland's biggest property developers including Derek Quinlan, Treasury Holdings' Johnny Ronan and Richard Barrett, Michael O'Flynn, Harry Crosbie and Joe O'Reilly.

They were among some of the biggest losers when Nama set off with seeming abandon in selling off what effectively were Ireland's crown jewels - London assets such as Battersea Power Station, the Knightsbridge Estate, and a major stake in the world famous Claridge's, Berkeley and Connaught hotels - for knockdown prices to vulture funds and other international investors.

The decision to take out Treasury Holdings in particular raised serious questions about Nama's conduct.

In 2012, when Treasury appealed the decision against Nama bosses who had called in their loans, Ms Justice Mary Finlay Geoghegan ruled in favour of Nama - and Treasury Holdings lost on a 'technicality'.

However, in her written summary, Ms Justice Geoghegan was highly critical of Nama.

In a public indictment of the agency, she found it acted unfairly and unreasonably against the developers because it did not fulfil its obligation to give a fair hearing to proposals which could have saved the company.

Two months later, Mr Ronan's chief legal counsel, Mr Williams, wrote on Mr Ronan's behalf to Finance Minister Michael Noonan. In the letter dated September 6, 2012, he outlined the sequence of events leading to the collapse of Treasury Holdings and raised grave concerns regarding Nama's actions to that point.

Nama was accused of losing a vast amount of money for Irish taxpayers through the sale of the jewel in Treasury's assets: London's iconic Battersea Power Station, which the agency sold for €477m but is now expected to generate profits of up €10bn.

Meanwhile, this weekend one developer who has not yet exited Nama- and who has worked with Mr Hanna - described him as "very, very tough" and "abrupt".

He said: "He had the power to make or break any of us."

A friend who would sometimes meet Mr Hanna socially during his time working with Nama said: "He was definitely an outsider in Dublin so he could disassociate from developers when he had to make decisions and I know that made his work easier for him."

The friend, who would drink socially with Mr Hanna, described him as "lonely" in Dublin, adding: "He would get the train down early on a Monday morning and come back up here to Belfast late on a Friday evening. He seemed under a lot of stress during his time with Nama. You could see it in his face.

"He aged hugely in the few years he was in Dublin and he didn't look great. He looked absolutely wrecked when I met him."

He went on: "I do know there was huge political pressure and Nama had to produce and deliver quickly and that's why very, very fast decisions were made. He was in a tough place. The atmosphere inside was very politically sensitive. Some developers appeared to have no chance to survive. People wanted blood and that was it. Politicians wanted results quickly."

Speaking about learning that his friend was embroiled in the Project Eagle controversy, the source said: "We were all shocked. I don't think he was the type of man who could do such a thing. I hope there will be an investigation to figure out what the hell happened. There is something definitely amiss [with the Nama controversy], things don't add up."

In recent months it has emerged that, on March 31 2014, Mr Hanna met John Snow, the head of Cerberus, the day before the US fund bid to buy the loans, worth £4.5bn. Three days later, Cerberus bid just £1.2bn for the loans, which was accepted by Nama. Six months later, Mr Hanna unexpectedly left the agency. Under Dail privilege, Independent TD Mick Wallace said Mr Hanna "was part of a cabal to seek payment for effecting the biggest property deal in the history of the State".

In March of this year both Mr Hanna and Mr Cushnahan were arrested by police, who seized documents and computers during raids on properties in Belfast. Nama belatedly lodged a complaint to the Standards in Public Office Commission in relation to its Northern-based former adviser Frank Cushnahan. When asked why Nama hasn't also lodged a complaint to the Standards in Public Office Commission in relation to its southern-based former adviser, Ronnie Hanna, a spokesperson for Nama refused to comment.

This weekend, commentators have suggested that Nama is trying to keep the controversy north of the border, for fear of it spilling into its dealings in its Dublin office.

Deputy Mick Wallace claimed that there is a "strong reluctance" to deal with the controversy due to" the fear that allowing a few cracks to develop could lead to the collapse of the Nama edifice." This weekend, a source close to the BBC Spotlight investigation told the Sunday Independent: "The team are still quietly plugging away. This is only the tip of the iceberg. There will be more to come."

Sunday Independent

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