Thursday 24 May 2018

Evidence casts shadow over Robinson's legacy

Mick Wallace. Photo: Tom Burke
Mick Wallace. Photo: Tom Burke
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

Although Peter Robinson may argue that there was no connection between the two events, just eight weeks separated Jamie Bryson's allegations about him and the then Northern Ireland First Minister's resignation announcement.

Mr Robinson's supporters bristle at the notion that the evidence of a blogger, whose credibility has been widely questioned, hastened the DUP leader's departure.

However, it is beyond doubt that Mr Bryson's unproven allegations of financial corruption have cast a shadow over Mr Robinson's legacy in retirement.

The story surrounding the sale of Nama's northern loans portfolio, Project Eagle, has become murkier with every new revelation.

It has included allegations of planned kick-backs for legal professionals, businessmen and a senior politician, involving millions of pounds in an Isle of Man bank account.

There have been allegations of secret meetings between politicians and vulture funds and evidence of deals being cut to benefit Nama debtors.

Nama itself has had to contend with claims that one of its former advisers used insider knowledge in a bid to benefit financially from the sale of the portfolio.

Now, the revelation that Mr Bryson appears to have been coached by Sinn Féin figures about how to deliver his evidence has added yet another layer of intrigue to an already dense and complicated story.

Prior to his involvement in the Nama controversy, Mr Bryson (26) was best known as a loyalist figure who had been involved in protests against the decision in 2012 by the city council to limit the number of days the Union Jack flies at Belfast City Hall.

He was convicted for taking part in unlawful public processions against the move.

In 2013, he caused outrage when he claimed that the murderous Ulster Volunteer Force was not a terrorist group.

Controversy over the Project Eagle sale ignited in July 2015 when Independent TD Mick Wallace claimed in the Dáil that £7.5m (€8.7m) in fees paid to Belfast law firm Tughans had been moved to an Isle of Man bank account to facilitate a payment to a Northern Ireland politician or political party.

In the weeks that followed, Mr Bryson began writing a series of blogs in which he named a number of individuals who he claimed were involved in corruption in relation to the deal.

Many of the parties involved denied any wrongdoing, but to date none have opted to sue Mr Bryson for defamation.

As a Stormont inquiry into the deal progressed, Mr Bryson wrote to the committee, asking to give evidence.

Several committee members, in particular members of Mr Robinson's DUP, expressed unease at the prospect of that evidence being given in public session.

However, Mr Bryson was allowed to address it.

At the hearing, Mr Bryson caused shockwaves when he claimed that five people, including Mr Robinson, were in line to benefit from the money in the Isle of Man bank account.

All five of them issued denials afterwards.

Mr Bryson did not provide any documentation to the committee to back up his claims. However, he claimed to have had sight of documents which supported his allegations.

He also claimed that documents proving his allegations were in the possession of the UK's National Crime Agency.

Mr Bryson's sources have been the subject of much speculation. He has said he would rather go to jail than divulge who they are.

The one thing he will confirm, however, is that the information did not originate from Sinn Féin.

How Project Eagle affair unfolded

May 2013: First Minister Peter Robinson meets with US global investment firm Pimco, which is interested in buying Nama's northern loans portfolio, Project Eagle. Also present at the meeting are Nama adviser Frank Cushnahan and Belfast solicitor Ian Coulter.

November 2013: Mr Cushnahan resigns as a Nama adviser.

December 2013: Pimco seeks a closed sale but Nama insists it will go on the open market.

March 2014: Pimco tells Nama its deal involves Stg£15m in fees being paid to law firm Brown Rudnick, Ian Coulter and Frank Cushnahan. Both sides voice concerns and Pimco withdraws.

April 2014: Cerberus has a €1.6bn offer accepted, outbidding rival firm Fortress.

July 2015: TD Mick Wallace claims that Stg£7.5m in an Isle of Man bank account was earmarked for a Northern Ireland politician or political party in connection with the deal. The account was controlled by Mr Coulter, who denies any wrongdoing. A criminal investigation begins.

September 2015: Blogger Jamie Bryson gives evidence to a Stormont inquiry alleging five people, including Mr Robinson, were to share in the Isle of Man cash. All five deny the claims.

November 2015: Mr Robinson announces he will step down as First Minister.

August 2016: It emerges Mr Bryson had contact with inquiry chairman Daithí McKay and another Sinn Féin figure in advance of giving evidence.

Leaked messages give the impression he was coached on how to deliver his testimony.

Mr McKay resigns as an MLA.

Irish Independent

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