Friday 21 October 2016

Is it 'game' over for the brazen state agency?

Emboldened from the outset by wartime powers, it's clear that Nama will not go down without a fight, writes Ronald Quinlan

Published 18/09/2016 | 02:30

Frank Daly, Chairman of NAMA. Photo: Tom Burke
Frank Daly, Chairman of NAMA. Photo: Tom Burke

Shortly after the Comptroller & Auditor General's special report into Nama's sale of its Northern Ireland loan book was published last Wednesday afternoon, I received a text message from a prominent figure in the property industry. It read: "Ronald, you have been vindicated as you fought a lone media journey for a long time. This country has burned billions of euro… even the Irish Times are now on board!"

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While I appreciated the sentiment, it wasn't vindication that I felt. It was disgust. I was disgusted by the absolute failure of our politicians - barring the notable exception of Independent TD Mick Wallace - and by the majority of my colleagues in the media to critically assess the manner in which Nama has conducted its business since its establishment in the depths of the financial crisis in 2009.

In saying that, I should admit I could just as easily have been one of the many who afforded Nama the proverbial free run to go about its business unimpeded by any form of dissent. But I was fortunate enough to work for the late Aengus Fanning, who, in one of his many moments of inspiration as editor of the Sunday Independent, instructed me to look into Nama, believing it to be too big, too powerful and far too important to this country's survival to be ignored.

And so I began to pursue the Nama story from day one. In the beginning, I pursued the developers whose billions of euro in borrowings the State's so-called 'bad bank' had vowed to recover, as we all believed they were the 'bad guys' who had brought the country to its knees. And for a time, it was simple to deliver this narrative. Given the national mood, it went down well with the masses and added to the political pressure Nama was under to - as the then finance minister, the late Brian Lenihan, put it - pursue developers "to the ends of the earth".

But as I got to know the developers whom I pursued, I came to understand they were merely participants - albeit at a high level - in a credit-fuelled boom that Ireland had been happy to participate in along with the rest of the entire western world. I also came to understand the nature of the business they were involved in, and to appreciate the skill of the country's professional developers as opposed to those speculators who had simply borrowed money all too easily in the boom from bankers hungry for commissions.

In 2010, I began my pursuit of their pursuers following Belfast-born property investor Paddy McKillen's decision to resist Nama's efforts to transfer his companies' loans on to its books. McKillen went all the way to the Supreme Court and won in the face of the unprecedented powers Nama had been given, powers which other developers sought not to fight for a variety of reasons.

Since then and right up until Wallace delivered his bombshell revelations in the Dail in July 2015 in relation to Nama's sale of its €5.6bn par value Northern Ireland loan book, I have written more stories than I want to remember about this 'toxic loan agency'.

For six years, I have been writing critically about Nama, and can say without fear of contradiction that every word I have written has been analysed by Nama, with a view to either tripping me up or shutting me up. Make no mistake about it, Nama is obsessed with the media and how it is portrayed in it. I'll give you one example and it relates to the developer who has been portrayed as a pantomime villain since the crash, Sean Dunne. When one looks at the email correspondence that flowed between Nama CEO Brendan McDonagh and his officials in relation to the media's coverage of Dunne during 2012, it becomes easier to understand how the developer was convinced the agency had him on a "wanted list".

Take, for instance, the email Nama official Ken Jordan forwarded to McDonagh at 9.12am on January 10, 2012. Attaching a transcript of an interview which RTE Radio's Drivetime had conducted the previous evening with Sunday Independent deputy business editor Tom Lyons on Nama's commencement of enforcement proceedings against Dunne, Jordan told the Nama CEO: "FYI - nice work." Acknowledging the email minutes later, McDonagh wrote: "All part of the game."

Just what "game" the Nama CEO was referring to is anyone's guess, given the massive job he and his agency have faced in recovering the billions the taxpayer has been forced to put into the banks.

There's something ironic in the case of Dunne. In being portrayed as Nama's greatest enemy despite only being its 39th most indebted, he has proved inadvertently to be one of its greatest allies. For while the public's anger against developers has been sustained for years by a steady flow of negative stories about the likes of Dunne, the agency's sale of multimillion euro loan books to vulture funds at massive discounts has largely gone unreported until recently.

But with the support of successive editors of the Sunday Independent, from Fanning to Anne Harris and now Cormac Bourke, I have written of: the leaking of secret information engaged in by Enda Farrell and other ex-Nama officials; the seamless movement of departing Nama employees to take up roles with firms who may or may not have an interest in acquiring Nama assets; the claims that Nama aided Paddy McKillen's rivals, the Barclay brothers, in the battle for control of Claridge's, the Berkeley and Connaught hotels in London; and the role Finance Minister Michael Noonan played in appointing FG trustee Mari Hurley to the board of Nama.

I also asked Nama chairman Frank Daly to comment on the nature of his relationship with Frank Cushnahan, the Northern Ireland businessman at the centre of the claims surrounding the Project Eagle sale. I did so owing to the fact the two served together as directors of Catholic charity Ciorani. A spokesman responded on Daly's behalf, saying: "Frank's charitable activities are a private matter and it is not appropriate for Nama to comment." "No comment" has been the default position adopted by Nama to my queries for years.

Politicians haven't fared much better with questions raised at Dail committees swatted away by the mere mention of "commercial sensitivity". Even in the face of a finding of proven criminality in the case of former Nama official Enda Farrell who leaked confidential information on the financial affairs of major Nama debtors to third parties, allegations of criminality on the part of another former Nama official, and the serious allegations in relation to its former Northern Ireland adviser, Frank Cushnahan, Nama has stubbornly refused to concede it may have a problem.

Wallace's pursuit in Dail Eireann of the claims relating to the Project Eagle sale, meanwhile, were met with indifference, ridicule or contempt. It's shameful that it took the combination of the BBC Spotlight team's broadcast of covert recordings of Cushnahan allegedly receiving stg£40,000 in a car park from a developer and the C&AG's Project Eagle report to make the Government take notice.

The C&AG's finding that Nama may have lost out on €220m by selling its €5.6bn Northern Ireland loan book to US private equity giant Cerberus for €1.6bn is damning in itself. What's potentially more damaging for Nama, however, is the manner in which it is has sought to defend itself by calling into question the competence of the C&AG.

There are those in the media who are surprised by Nama's 'unprecedented' rejection of the Project Eagle findings. I am not. Nama was emboldened from the outset by the wartime powers it was given by the then government, and is now almost brazen. There are careers, reputations and legacies at stake, and if Nama is to go down, it will not go down without a fight.

Sunday Independent

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