Tuesday 25 June 2019

Crisis for Sinn Féin as MLA quits over witness coaching allegations

Party says Daithí McKay accepted he made 'an error of judgment'

Daithi McKay. Photo: PA
Daithi McKay. Photo: PA
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

Sinn Féin has been accused of throwing one of its top politicians to the wolves over claims he "coached" a high-profile witness to the Nama inquiry.

Daithí McKay dramatic­ally quit yesterday, hours after leaked Twitter messages were made public.

He faces allegations he coached a witness who claimed the North's former First Minister Peter Robinson was to benefit financially from the sale of Nama's northern loan portfolio.

Mr McKay, who chaired the Stormont finance committee inquiry into the Project Eagle sale, stepped down as MLA for North Antrim after the contacts between him and Loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson emerged.

He was also suspended by Sinn Féin, with the party saying Mr McKay accepted he had made "an error of judgment".

But last night, amid calls for a PSNI probe, there were claims that Mr McKay had been sacrificed to protect more senior Sinn Féin figures.

Former DUP leader Peter Robinson. Photo: PA
Former DUP leader Peter Robinson. Photo: PA

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said: "Sinn Féin don't do lone wolves, they do scapegoats."

Mr McKay's resignation was announced in a statement issued by the party's press office.

It was released 14 minutes after a statement from Martin McGuinness, which said he should "seriously consider his position as an MLA".

The Deputy First Minister said Sinn Féin did not have any knowledge of any alleged contact with witnesses.

Jamie Bryson. Photo: PA Wire
Jamie Bryson. Photo: PA Wire

"I want to state categorically that I had absolutely no knowledge of this exchange or contact," he said.

But Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt said Mr McGuinness's denial was far from the end of the matter. "Martin McGuinness's statement lacks the ring of truth," he said.

Jamie Bryson said Mr Mc­Kay had been "thrown to the wolves", claiming that the matter went "right to the very top".

"I am absolutely clear in my mind that Daithí McKay is no lone wolf," he said.

"He was thrown so quickly under a bus to protect much higher figures in Sinn Féin who have their hands dirty on this."

Mr McKay's shock resignation came after private Twitter exchanges he and party member Thomas O'Hara had with Mr Bryson in advance of the hearing were leaked to the media.

The politician told Mr Bryson the type of evidence that would "tick the box".

He then referred Mr Bryson to Mr O'Hara's Twitter account.

Mr Bryson gave sensational testimony at an inquiry hearing last September, claiming Mr Robinson was among five people who had been due to share a £7.5m (€8.7m) "success fee" from the deal.

The then DUP leader strenuously denied benefiting from the sale of the portfolio, but announced two months later he would be stepping down.

Twitter correspondence shows Mr O'Hara advised Mr Bryson to initially refer to Mr Robinson as "Person A".

"So say all you have to say about him referring to him as Person A. Then in your final line say: 'Person A is Peter Robinson MLA'," Mr O'Hara wrote.

"[It] means that the committee cannot interrupt you and means that you don't have to say Robbo's name until the very last second. So then it's job done!"

The ploy suggested was used by Mr Bryson at the hearing and significantly added to the dramatic effect of his evidence.

Mr Bryson did not dispute being in contact with Mr McKay and Mr O'Hara, but insisted it did not amount to coaching. He also said none of his evidence originated from Sinn Féin.

The committee inquiry was launched last year amid political disquiet over the Project Eagle deal, which saw 850 loans, once valued at €6.3bn and predominantly linked to properties in the North, sold for a knockdown price of €1.6bn to vulture fund Cerberus in April 2014.

Who's who in the saga

Daithí McKay (34) had been an MLA for North Antrim since 2007 and was considered one of Sinn Féin's rising stars. He was only 16 when the Good Friday Agreement was signed. He took a big interest in Palestinian rights and the Basque Country when he was in Ógra Shinn Féin. At just 23, he was a councillor in Ballymoney and two years later he took an assembly seat on the first count. He chaired the Stormont finance committee inquiry into the Project Eagle sale but resigned after allegations that he coached a witness to undermine First Minister Peter Robinson.

Jamie Bryson is a loyalist blogger who gained 167 votes in a local government poll in 2011. The next year, he was catapulted to prominence in protests aimed at getting the Union flag flying again at Belfast City Hall. In 2013, police tried to arrest him over public-order offences and said they found him hiding in an attic. Pastor Mark Gordon said Bryson was on a hunger strike in custody but police sources claimed he had lasted just half-a-day before asking for an Indian meal, leading to the nickname 'Jamie Biryani'.

Thomas O'Hara is a Sinn Féin member who starred in his own bizarre YouTube video, based on the dating show 'Take Me Out'. Mr O'Hara, who was 27 when the video was recorded in 2012, was described then as a "wannabe MLA". He said he wanted "to be President of Ireland - 32 counties". He is now in the thick of the political storm after being linked to the 'coaching' of Bryson.

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Also in this section