Sunday 26 May 2019

Noonan stonewalls criticism of Nama loans sale

Pressure mounting on Finance Minister after he failed to act over Project Eagle

Michael Noonan. Photo: Tony Gavin
Michael Noonan. Photo: Tony Gavin
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

Finance Minister Michael Noonan has stonewalled criticism of his handling of a controversial Nama sale.

Mr Noonan refused to say why he failed to halt the sale of its Northern loans portfolio.

Pressure is mounting on the minister to explain his failure to act, after a parliamentary inquiry in Stormont criticised him for not stepping in when it emerged the sales process may have been compromised.

Mr Noonan was informed by Nama in March 2014 that it had discovered a former agency advisor, Frank Cushnahan, stood to earn a fee of Stg£5m if the Project Eagle portfolio was sold to investment firm Pimco.

In a report published yesterday, the Northern Ireland Assembly's Committee on Finance and Personnel said it was "unclear" why Mr Noonan had not acted on this information to halt the sales process and launch an investigation.

Instead he allowed the portfolio to be sold to US vulture fund Cerberus the next month.

A criminal inquiry is now examining allegations Mr Cushnahan was set to benefit from that as well. In a secretly recorded conversation broadcast by the BBC, Mr Cushnahan appeared to say he was due Stg£6m.

The chairman of the inquiry, Sinn Féin MLA Daithi McKay, said: "Michael Noonan should have done more and Nama should have done more. That was unanimous across the political parties at the committee."

The report comes as a major blow to Mr Noonan's credibility at a time when he is centrally involved in Fine Gael's efforts to form a new Government.

However, Mr Noonan refused to address the criticism, instead issuing a statement backing Nama's handling of the affair.

Despite, as the report noted, possessing general powers of direction over Nama, the minister insisted the matter was one for the Nama board.

Nama was criticised in the report for failing to halt the sale and for not giving oral evidence to the inquiry. But Mr Noonan insisted Nama acted correctly.

A statement issued by his spokesman said: "The Department of Finance is satisfied that Nama adhered to its mandate to achieve the best return for the Irish taxpayer.

"This was clearly demonstrated through Nama's insistence on an open market sales process for this portfolio which places each bidder on level footing in terms of their knowledge of the portfolio."

The statement insisted both Nama and the department had provided comprehensive evidence to the Stormont inquiry.

"All relevant information that can be made public about this process has already been made public by the department and by Nama," the statement said.

It said that the criminal inquiry was focused "on the buyer side" of the transaction and that there was no allegation of wrongdoing against Nama.

Several questions posed by the Irish Independent went unanswered. Mr Noonan refused to say why he had not intervened, why he did not pass the information to the Northern Ireland Executive, or whether he believed Nama should reconsider its refusal to provide oral evidence. He also refused to say whether or not he was satisfied he was fully briefed by Nama on the Cushnahan affair.

Nama also failed to answer several questions. A statement said: "Nama has provided comprehensive information to the PAC and the Northern Ireland Finance Committee which addresses these issues and has nothing further to add."

Irish Independent

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