Wednesday 28 September 2016

It will be a fatal error if the Government tries to seal Nama's toxic spill at Border

Published 16/09/2016 | 02:30

'The 'up there' mentality helped shield Nama in the early stages of the controversy which, in contrast, sent political shockwaves throughout Northern Ireland.' (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)
'The 'up there' mentality helped shield Nama in the early stages of the controversy which, in contrast, sent political shockwaves throughout Northern Ireland.' (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

One of the most frustrating things about being a 'Northerner' living in the Republic (as I have for 20 years) is the indifference of our brethren south of the Border to those in the 'beleaguered six'.

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Despite the feel-good factor about the Good Friday Agreement and the Peace Process (a late add-on in the recent Brexit debate), at times it feels like the North is another country.

The long-standing indifference, occasionally bordering on contempt towards the North, is the reason why I doubt the Republic would vote for a United Ireland if the opportunity arose anytime soon. And it helps explain the initial lethargic 'whatevs' response in the 26 counties to the staggering controversy surrounding Nama and the €1.6bn sale of Project Eagle.

The 'up there' mentality helped shield Nama in the early stages of the controversy which, in contrast, sent political shockwaves throughout Northern Ireland.

First it was alleged that Frank Cushnahan, a member of Nama's Northern Ireland Advisory Committee (Niac), stood to earn stg£5m had one bidder, global investment firm Pimco, been successful in its bid for the Project Eagle portfolio.

The bid was ultimately won by mega US investment firm Cerberus in April 2014. Then it emerged in the wake of that deal that Cerberus indirectly paid a fee of stg£7.5m to Tughans, a Belfast law firm where businessman and solicitor Ian Coulter had served as managing partner.

A large portion of that money was then moved to an Isle of Man bank account under the control of Coulter, who last November was questioned under caution by the UK's National Crime Agency.

The account was allegedly intended to facilitate payments to non-lawyers or deal fixers.

When these sensational claims were unleashed, Nama shrugged its shoulders, distancing itself from Cushnahan and stating that members of the Niac had no role in relation to Nama debtors or the assets securing their loans.

The Niac had "no decision-making powers", and trumped Nama in the manner of a recalcitrant child who has been told off at school.

The toxic loans agency (hasn't that Nama moniker taken on a fresh meaning in the wake of the C&AG report?) dismissed the controversy surrounding Cushnahan, comforting itself that any potential skulduggery was done on the "buy side".

It didn't even contact its former Northern star after Pimco revealed to the agency that it had agreed to stump up a stg£5m success fee.

Just think about that. And weep.

Then came last week's staggering BBC 'Spotlight' programme, which aired a recording of Cushnahan accepting a stg£40,000 payment from a Northern Ireland developer.

The recording was reportedly made in 2012 when Cushnahan was still a member of the Niac.

Nama belatedly filed a complaint to the gardaí last Friday in the wake of the programme. But it wasn't until the publication two days ago of the C&AG report that Nama finally started to accept the scale of the problem posed to the integrity of its overall sales process courtesy of its Northern adventures.

Even then, Nama chairman Frank Daly took to the airwaves to dismiss the Niac as "a talking shop".

But Nama owns the shop and what happens on or off its premises matters.

The creation of the Niac was itself a political sop, a compromise in lieu of a permanent Northern Ireland board member - even though Ronnie Hanna, Nama's former head of assets recovery, is from Northern Ireland.

It was the late Finance Minister Brian Lenihan who agreed to appoint Cushnahan to Nama on foot of a recommendation from Democratic Unionist MP Sammy Wilson, his former counterpart in the North.

David Sterling, the North's Department of Finance and Personnel permanent secretary, told an inquiry in Stormont that the decision about who sat on the Niac committee was a matter for Mr Lenihan.

So too is the conduct of the Niac the responsibility of Nama.

Not for the first time, we have ignored the North at our peril.

The Government will seek to hermetically seal the North in the terms of reference for its forthcoming inquiry.

History tells us that would be a fatal mistake.

Irish Independent

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