Monday 21 May 2018

Q&A: How we got to the cusp of a State inquiry into the Project Eagle sale

Mick Wallace. Pic Tom Burke
Mick Wallace. Pic Tom Burke
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

It would appear we are on the cusp of a State inquiry being ordered into the sale of Nama's Northern Ireland loan portfolio, Project Eagle. How did we get to this situation?

The controversy kicked off last summer when Independent TD Mick Wallace alleged in the Dáil that around Stg£7m linked to the sale was placed in an Isle of Man bank account and had been destined for a Northern Ireland politician or party.

Frank Cushnahan
Frank Cushnahan

Since then, probes have been launched by the UK's National Crime Agency (NCA) and the Stormont finance committee. The US Securities and Exchange Commission is also examining the sale, as the 850 property loans were acquired by Cerberus, an American private investment fund.

But there has been no official inquiry in the Republic of Ireland, either by gardaí or by the Government.

What has happened to potentially change that?

Firstly, secret recordings broadcast by the BBC show former Nama adviser Frank Cushnahan claim he was able to exert influence over Nama's then head of asset management, Ronnie Hanna.

Mr Cushnahan was recorded receiving a bag with Stg£40,000 from property developer and Nama debtor John Miskelly.

He appeared to suggest Mr Hanna could help him extract loans belonging to Mr Miskelly out of Nama and divert them back to the Co Down businessman.

The allegation, denied by Mr Hanna, struck right to the heart of Nama's senior management team.

The second development was the disclosure that a forthcoming C&AG report will express concern that hundreds of millions of euro more could have been made from the sale.

The portfolio, once valued at €5.7bn, went for only €1.6bn when Cerberus bought it in April 2014.

Mr Kenny is not known for backing down easily. Could his hand be forced by this new information?

It certainly could. The Government is dependent on Fianna Fáil's support and its leader Micheál Martin said an inquiry was now inevitable and that the deal "stinks to high heaven". There is also likely to be pressure for an inquiry from independent members of the Cabinet.

Surely there would be a reluctance to have an inquiry that could impede the NCA investigation in the North?

Of course there would. The NCA probe has been ongoing for over a year and has involved the questioning of both Mr Cushnahan and Mr Hanna, who both deny wrongdoing.

But many hold the view that a judge-led inquiry should still be set up to establish the facts around the sale, and this may not necessarily get in the way of the criminal probe.

Would the Government have questions to answer?

Yes, it would. Finance Minister Michael Noonan was informed by Nama in March 2014 that it had discovered Mr Cushnahan was to be paid a Stg£5m fee by investment firm Pimco, who subsequently pulled out of the bidding. A Stormont inquiry report said it was "unclear" why Mr Noonan did not act on this information to halt the sales process and launch an investigation. Instead, he allowed the portfolio to be sold to Cerberus the following month.

Has Mr Noonan explained his thinking in allowing the sale proceed when there were question marks over the process?

He hasn't addressed the question, but insists Nama handled matters correctly.

And what has Nama got to say?

The agency has always maintained it organised an open market sale with competitive tension and got the best price it could for the portfolio. Indeed, it now appears to be on course for a major row with the C&AG over its findings.

Irish Independent

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