Stormont’s blunt edged NAMA inquiry (or fishing expedition?) and the politics of distraction…

So Peter Robinson took ‘the stand’ yesterday at the Finance and Personnel Committee. Unlike the dFM, the FM is a details man. In the early outline of his case Robinson seemed eager to deal with what we might loosely call found departures from fact in the dFM’s account to the committee:

I want to touch on four occasions referred to in his evidence where my recollections differ from Martin’s. The first occasion relates to the meeting with Minister Noonan on 27 September. During his evidence to the Committee, the deputy First Minister stated:

“On 27 September 2013, there was a meeting between the First Minister, the Minister of Finance and Personnel Simon Hamilton and Michael Noonan at Stormont. I was not aware of that.”

That is not correct. In advance of that meeting, I had briefed the deputy First Minister on the issues that were going to be raised at the meeting, and I had invited him to it. In the event, he was unable to attend the meeting due to the fact that he had to attend a funeral, but it was agreed that he would be briefed after the meeting. I have a copy of a text message between my special adviser and his that confirms my contention. I can make it available to the Committee.

I won’t belabour you dear reader with the rest of the stuff (though do feel free to bring up anything you feel I’ve missed in the comment zone) on this matter, but as John Campbell notes, the tone was fairly mannerly:

Here’s a good example of it in this exchange with Dominic Bradley:

Mr D Bradley: Good morning, First Minister. I want to go back to the extent to which the deputy First Minister was kept informed of the various developments in these matters. When he was before the Committee, I did not suggest that the wool was being pulled over his eyes.

 

Mr P Robinson: You came fairly close.

 

Mr D Bradley: I think that I used the phrase that he was being “kept in the dark”. You obviously, in the information that you have provided here, refute that. I get the impression that the main interest in these issues was coming from, let us say, your side of the Department. Was the deputy First Minister a little disinterested in all of this?

 

Mr P Robinson: No. It is unfair to suggest, as some would, that he was in some way a passenger or an observer in these matters. He had already made his statements publicly indicating that he was looking for an equity partner to dispose of the assets and take them from NAMA and that he had thought that that was a good thing; that is on the Assembly’s record. There was no difference between the deputy First Minister and me, nor indeed between any other Ministers, during the whole of the process.

 

There was never anybody who said, “Look, hold on a second. I know nothing about this. I do not like what is going on”. That just did not happen. The process went ahead. The deputy First Minister was informed. It is not a matter of whether you believe Martin’s account or mine: I am providing you with the evidence that indicates that the MOUs were sent. It is unfair to the deputy First Minister for people to suggest that somehow his special advisers were in charge of the Department and would spoon feed him, give him information or not give him information as they chose. That is not the Martin McGuinness I know, I have to say.

 

He was aware of what was going on. I simply put it down to the frailty of memory. I know from my own position that I find it hard. Memory is a strange thing. Often, something is needed to jog recollection of an event. I have had that to some extent by being able to look at some of the contemporaneous information, but I think that it is very clear from what I have already said, shown and proven that he was being kept up to date. You are right in saying — I have never resiled from the fact — that, when it comes to matters relating to education, agriculture, the arts and leisure, the deputy First Minister will be more engaged in and knowledgeable about those matters because his colleagues hold those Departments.

 

Finance, the economy and investment are issues within the Departments that my colleagues hold, so, yes, we are more involved and active in them. The issue is not whether we were more involved and active; it is whether we were keeping him in the dark. I think that we have shown that we were not.

There’s a number fascinating set plays throughout the whole matter, but one is worth focusing on briefly (not least because it relates to something raised by a DUP member of the committee and then apparently discounted by the Chair on the business of speculation:

Mr Ó Muilleoir: Do you view Frank Cushnahan — he is loquacious, avuncular and has many years of service — as an honourable man?

 

Mr P Robinson: I think that the general view of Frank Cushnahan, in that he was used very considerably as an expert in these areas, was that he was almost a guru on banking and financial issues. I am not in a position where I can indicate whether there was any conflict of interest, because I would need to know what his legal requirements were in the office that he held with NAMA as a member of the advisory committee. Those are matters that others will decide and not me. Again, I am not going to speculate on these matters. It is inappropriate to do so; it crosses the line into the territory of the NCA. I know that the Committee has received legal advice and does not want to stray into those areas.

 

Mr Ó Muilleoir: That is fair enough, as far as it goes, but it is very material to us. Mr Cushnahan was appointed to the NI advisory committee, and it seems to me that he has let us all down, at the very least.

A early reference perhaps the Emerald Fund deal with which Mairtin was great deal more intimate than this one. Presumably in an effort to pad out his own presentation he mentions another Belfast businessman involved then along with some rather unsavoury (and unsupported) inferences. 

In the meanwhile, his party colleague in the European Parliament asked who got the money? To which the bleedin obvious answer remains the same as has been since before the Mick Wallace revelations, ie Tughans.

We see just why the southern government’s attempt to give parliamentary committees special investigative powers failed at referendum. I see a lot of attempts to settle scores here (and not just with the DUP).  Liam Clarke says Robinson’s performance suggest two things:

Firstly, Mr Robinson is fairly confident on Nama. He is in suing mode if anyone with the resources to cover his costs repeats Mr Bryson’s allegations outside privilege. Secondly, he is working on a solution to the present troubles with Mr McGuinness. The smaller parties have suspected this since Tuesday of last week and have regarded it as a “side deal” which excludes them.

But the truth is that core of the DUP’s protest has been distracted by what is by all reasonable measures a sham investigation that has constantly promised much and delivered very little in the way of insight (other than how SF spads are trained to ‘keep their ministers in the dark’). There were, I suppose a few little crumbs from looks and feels like a full scale fishing expedition…

Here’s that latest Nama statement following today’s Finance Committee hearing pic.twitter.com/svIcJADOmC — JPCampbellBiz (@JP_Biz) October 14, 2015

  • T.E.Lawrence

    Mr O’Muilleouir calling for “honourable Men” SOUTH BELFAST Westminster General Elections Campaign 2015 !

  • Granni Trixie

    When you say “Sham investigation” Mick are you referring to the Stormont Finance Committee? If so, I do not see why you portray it in those terms. And I think that “attempts to settle scores” is also the least of what is going on.
    other elements are more significant. Such as that now the public can see the impact of the having some people on the panel/committee who seem to operate in self interest. This is obvious in the appointment of EP who clearly has a conflict of interest.
    And before you write off the exercise think on what we know because of reporting About the committee. So even if a legal route to a remedy is unsuccesful in getting at the truth at least a light is being shone on lack of standards in public life.

    What is the point of having the Nolan Principles apply to ordinary people on public bodies if politicians standards are so low?

  • Redstar

    Mick as a unionist has decided Peters an honourable man, not the type to get involved in dodgey dealings.

    Was a great stroke of luck that time Peter made such a fat wedge on his garden land deal though……

  • mickfealty

    I have done no such thing. But I’ll be generous and put that remark down to your own human frailty rather than a deliberate attempt to mislead… 🙂

  • Catcher in the Rye

    If anyone has any specific evidence of Peter Robinson being involved in anything dishonourable let him produce it here.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    I think Mick’s calling it a sham investigation because it isn’t serious. It doesn’t have the power to compel witnesses and is competing directly with a criminal investigation launched by the NCA. It serves absolutely no purpose.

  • mickfealty

    Oh it’s a sham alright.

    Look at Mairtin’s reference to the Emerald deal. That’s a deal he was intimately involved in and which he proactively helped grease the wheels for (all in a perfectly legal way I might say). At end of the day it failed.

    Again, not exactly Mairtin’s fault, the structures where such that no publicly funded bodies in NI were able to access the investment. So no funds were forthcoming. Well intentioned, legal but a failure.

    Now why has it come up in this case?

    Mairtin is certainly making a nasty inference there in the question I’ve highlighted, but for which he offers no practical grounds. I read it as an attempt to sound serious whilst fishing off the dirty end of the pier.

    In any judge led inquiry time is set aside to consider what’s admissible and what’s not. (You can usually tell what’s in and what’s out in the process of the trial because s/he tends to scribble when the relevant arguments are being made).

    In other words, they have to sort out what they can accept, and rule out rhetoric, polemic or circumstantial distraction. My issue here is I’m not hearing a lot of facts. If you are, and I’ve missed them, then I’m all ears.

    But, without being mean about it, my suspicion is that you haven’t.

    Breaches of the Nolan principles are an excellent place to start. But dollars to doughnuts what you have is suspicion and not a factual case that would stand up in a civil or criminal hearing.

    I’m not interested in defending Robinson. Just due process. And everyone seems to be ignoring it. The NCA will be the ones to deliver the coup de grace (if anyone ever does).

    This is just a toothless attempt at creating a Star Chamber for the dispatch of political enemies, being given an unusually fair wind by the media…

  • mickfealty

    Up to the point of legality….

  • Granni Trixie

    No matter how inadequate, it is in the public interest to bring what is known into the open. It’s called transparency.

    I also disagree that the committee is in competition with a criminal investigation.
    Interestingly, that was the reasoning also used against Jamie Bryson appearing before the committee. Although this was said to be based on legal advice I have spoken to well qualified lawyers who say that such a view is “overly cautious”.

  • Granni Trixie

    Mick the Emerald thingy may be a self serving reference but it’s not a hanging offence,we all do it plus I dont know why you’re preoccupied with MMG, these are not important elements of the story IMO. I am also less preoccupied with the legal route so much as the moral case and the right of public to know what is gong on for as we have seen in Red Sky in the end the allegations Could just disappear from view, alive only in rumour and memory ie No legal case.

    What matters here is to get to the bottom of allegations of a culture of corruption.
    You ask about “facts” surely there is now enough knowledge in public domain about networks of influence to at least suggest that the committee had no option but to follow this route?

  • Granni Trixie

    To clarify re Nolan – was thinking of the composition of the Committee itself and how it looks like the DUP for example are not even attempting to be objective, neutral etc. In case of Emma G on a public or charitable board she would be expected to declare an interest no matter how “professional” she is ( which she claims is the reason she has not stepped aside)).

    you ask for facts Mick well PR appointed this woman to this committee despite a clear conflict of interest on several points. Talk about taking the public for granted.

  • Granni Trixie

    Would you call the appointment of Emma P. Onto the committee As ‘honourable’ given conflicts of interests? (And see reference to this below). In ‘normal’ life this could not happen she would have to stand aside.

  • mickfealty

    ‘Public Knowledge’ doesn’t qualify as ‘fact’. That’s why I’m specifically asking about them. If there’s so many facts in the public domain, then let’s have a few of them? One, even?

    Emerald is a false appeal to authority, in order to make a dud question sound real. Yes, we’ve all done it, but then we all also know what it adds up to: a sham investigation.

  • mickfealty

    The committee chair accepted her reasoning for staying in at the start of the meeting. (I don’t think I would have if I’m honest). But you are moving away from the point there Granni.

    Honourable is not a evidential standard, and it’s thrown in there no doubt to put people off the scent. There’s one question we need to ask over and over: where’s the evidence?

    Everything else is just the clack of knitting needles. 😉

  • Granni Trixie

    Are you dense ( couldn’t resist – in our house that’s a wee family joke).
    OK. What about the pattern of relationships ……does that count as “fact” ?

    The bottom line is Mick that I think there is at the very least sufficient knowledge to say there could be a case to answer which is why I welcomed PR and hopefully SH and SW having the opportunity to expand on how the system worked from their POV. But I will always think it stinks the way the DUPers on the committee don’t seem to have made any attempt to behave independently.
    I certainly think that the honourable thing to do would have been not to appoint Emma G. Brass neck comes to mind.

  • mickfealty

    Are you still studiously avoiding the lack of material facts?

    Something may yet turn up, but my current hunch is this will all be dropped at the convenient moment. When we’ve all got fed up telling each other how much we hate the DUP, perhaps?

    My first judgement was there is and continues to be a problem with the way public appointments are made in NI: https://goo.gl/rcc4Q1. But little of that is being actively considered by the committee.

    Given Mairtin has had very little exposure to making such appointments it is interesting that he himself has had a connection to Cushnahan through Emerald.

    Mairtin also benefited from the summary ‘execution’ of the four directors of NI Water which his party colleague Minister Conor Murphy made.

    On a bizarre side note, Conor was later ‘booked’ by the Equality Commission for discriminating against a Protestant applicant for the post of Chair of NI Water.

  • Daragh

    Completely laughable that Mick has learned very little other than Sein Fein Spads are trained to trained to keep their ministers in the dark.

    However he is at least insisting on evidence on scandals, so let’s hope he applies this new standard to other parties involved in scandals in the future.

    With regards to this scandal itself, it was always going to be difficult to prove anything given the funds were recalled before they could reach their final destination. It is even more difficult to prove given the limited investigative powers of the committee, which has been clearly illustrated by the fact that two DUP ministers have even refused to reply to letters requesting them to appear before it. Toothless is not the word…..

    However people do know that those funds were intended for someone (some people), that PR spoke publicly in support for the deal, that PR is close to some of the other fixers identified as benefiting from the transaction and that PR has in the recent past saw nothing wrong in benefitting from a £5 land deal from a property developer.

    These are not questions for this site however, here we should focus on whether MMG was at one particular meeting (out of many I am sure) and whether his Spad is deliberately withholding information from him…….

    Hey, look at that tree over there ?

  • Kevin Breslin

    I’ll give Peter some credit …

    Standing by his wife and family
    Standing side by side with the rest of society against the killers of Ronan Kerr

    Being a lot more gracious in defeat than Gavin Robbo was in victory

    Standing up for integrated education and backing the Fleadh

    I’ll also give him the presumption of innocence, like I do Sinn Féin over this “IRA” existence thing.

    However Mick calling investigations north and south and elsewhere sham investigations, and pretending it was an above board deal where they only thing wrong was a bunch of greedy solicitors made a load of money off of it is ridiculous.

    There are UK, Irish and American investigations going on!

    Are the British fools here?
    Are the Irish fools here?
    Are the Americans fools here?

  • Kevin Breslin

    Where’s your evidence that this is a complete sham investigation that only exists to to knock chunks out of the DUP and its associates?

  • mickfealty

    Like it. The last line marks you out as a serious, observant and long term reader of Slugger. Nice to hear you speak at last. And I think you know very well that I’ve demonstrated a few more learning points than just the one you mentioned…

  • mickfealty

    Martin’s evidence.

  • mickfealty

    None of why you might ‘like’ Peter is relevant here. But parliamentary committees have a poor record as investigative tools in Ireland. That’s why generally we farm this stuff out to the judiciary and the cops.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Well it’s not the job of a political committee to police or judge, any more than it was in the remit of the Iraq War Inquiry to find and capture Saddam Hussein.

    These exist to reform the Assembly’s standards and practices in areas like the conduct of the First and Deputy First Minister. If both behaved above board, if all the Bryson and Wallace crowd have is unsubstantiated hearsay and conjecture with no evidence, it still wouldn’t be a sham, in my opinion, it’d be a worthwhile precaution.

  • Kevin Breslin

    That’s a complete sham accusation, this is a DUP run department, with the only DUP minister that stays in, and the DUP member involved was able to defend themselves.

    Are we saying Judith Cochraine, John McCallister, Leslie Cree, Dominic Bradley with feet in neither camp, can’t be objective on these matters?

  • mickfealty

    OFMdFM is a joint office is it not?

  • Kevin Breslin

    It is indeed, but this NAMA investigation is being carried out by the Finance Committee, which I assume everyone knows is Arlene’s remit.

    As they say in Irish, Tá bron ort.

  • mickfealty

    Yes, and under the control of SF, not Arlene. A good example is the free hit Mairtin was allowed in that question I highlighted earlier to Granni.

    I suspect within party structures, Mairtin is the more senior between himself and the chair.

  • hugh mccloy

    Of the 2 performances FM definitely out performed DFM

  • Kevin Breslin

    Chair does not mean control. There are four DUP MLAs including their newest one on the committee, it’s ridiculous to believe SF hold the balance of power there.

  • mickfealty

    Strictly speaking, that’s true.

    At certain points that Mairtin appears to have the ‘senior’ voice. But let’s not be naive or foolish about this? The Chair has considerable power in the way the interrogation is conducted.

    It’s clear however from watching the proceedings that Robbo is dealing with an away and a home team. Ian McCrea’s line of questioning is particularly ‘helpful’ for instance.

    You really should watch it Kevin. It’s quite a performance. From the ‘generosity’ of the FM, to the planting of certain (undocumented) assertions from his interlocutors…

  • Kevin Breslin

    The balance of power in the committee lies with the four “neutral” MLAs that I mentioned earlier. I don’t think the DUP have done anything to make it easy for these referees to be polarised to a more biased position like they had done with the Palmer family over the RedSky affair.

    This might be a fishing expidition but hardly a sham.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Granni: “Evidence is what you need to be certain of getting a safe conviction. You don’t need that to form an intelligent view of what was is most likely to have happened.”

    https://disqus.com/home/discussion/sluggerotoole/robinson8217s_comedy_bloomers_or_the_limited_value_of_purely_tactical_maneuvers8230/#comment-2250463241

    Two things are being discussed here, our perception of things as developed from the impressions we are receiving from what we see in the media and (sometimes) experience directly or hear from friends who know these people. I think Mick is referring to the kind of proof (“material fact”) that would permit a successful prosecution, something that is unlikely to surface in this situation.

    There are times when I’d wish those Scots who planted our land some centuries back would have developed here the Scots legal usage that permitted that very wise Scots verdict of “notproven”, which was their historical equivalent of “not guilty” before 1728, when “not guilty” began to be used. In a situation where the likes of Leon Brittain and other elite and media figures are being described in parliament and in the media as “innocent” simply because the legal system only offers black and white verdicts, this ability of a jury to state that although the evidence is not strong enough, probability is, would be a most useful solution. This verdict of “we all know who did it but cannot prove this” would offer many of us who are unable to believe in a claim of innocence that is, in essence, no more provable than irrefutable guilt, the most accurate evaluation of reality in situations such as this.

  • Granni Trixie

    i actually agree with you,Mick! Robbo gave a star performance not least when delivering his “generosity”. Truth be told I would be really happy if I thought this sign of good/ normal working relationships genuinely prevailed.

  • Granni Trixie

    Good point.

  • Granni Trixie

    Thanks Seann for trying to relieve my frustration by untangling sme if the web.
    Yes, I know we construct our worlds (and morality) magpie like from this and that. A tiny example is that one is entitled to interpret various ways the fact that Jamie Bryson not being sued – yet he has trashed many reputations.

    My starting point however was never about evidence for a court case more about bringing systems out into the open for the public to judge standards in public life.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Indeed, granni, and I’d entirely agree with you about “bringing systems out into the open for the public to judge standards in public life”, but access to any real transparency is blocked by those all too ready to take legal advice to sue anyone bringing anything into the open that has no solid “factual” foundation in the strictly legal sense.

    Although Jamie has not been sued, it is possible that this may simply be because what would be said in court would be far more damaging to the alternative of “patrician distain”, even should what Jamie says be strictly “factually underpinned” or not. As Cicero said,

    “O tempora, o mores……”

    On the subject of Cicero, you might just enjoy Robert Harris’s new novel:

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Dictator-Robert-Harris/dp/0091752108/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8

  • mickfealty

    None of it is quite real Granni. That’s one reason I’m not sure any of this will last the test of time. The generosity may have been calculated and tactical, but in fact that calculation may be the source of genuine optimism. It’s worth watching Martin’s youtube afterwards.

    You may get an odd feeling of vertigo afterwards. 😉

  • mickfealty

    They were by far the most compelling questioners, at least from my own pov…

  • Pigeon Toes

    Peter Robinson’s reliance on a NOTE written some two months after the event , (by DOF) and with the absence of contemporaneous minute/notes by his own, or any department makes me question his position. The timing of same note is curious , and its counterpart within OFDFM/DFP should have been released to allow proper scrutiny.,,

  • Pigeon Toes

    Really? Robinson set out his piece about the “Deputy First Minister” without actual evidence of Marty being involved.. When he ALLUDED to supposed joint decision processes, it was all “Martin (and I)….”
    Personally, the decision to block questions, step “aside” ,retain Arlene as DFP Minister-who blocked responses to the scrutiny committee- and then appoint former SPADS (non-democratically-elected) to the same scrutiny committee, is kind of er painting a picture..
    Peter also seems to suffer from an absence of memory, which should be of concern…

  • Catcher in the Rye

    No matter how inadequate, it is in the public interest to bring what is known into the open. It’s called transparency.

    Granted, but by this metric the committee inquiry is a total failure. It has merely served as a staging post for the repetition of allegations made in the media and by certain individuals.

    I also disagree that the committee is in competition with a criminal investigation.

    Fair enough. But it’s the criminal investigation which will identify whether or not any criminal activity occurred, and it is the outcome of that which will lead to justice.

    Interestingly, that was the reasoning also used against Jamie Bryson appearing before the committee. Although this was said to be based on legal advice I have spoken to well qualified lawyers who say that such a view is “overly cautious”.

    The real reason to oppose Bryson’s testimony is because his presence and his commentary make a mockery out of what is supposed to be a serious process. They may as well invite every clown who publishes made-up rubbish on a blog.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    I wouldn’t suggest that it’s an example of acting honourably, but given that the committee is more interested in granting an audience to people like Jamie Bryson to publish unsubstantiated allegations in public view rather than cross-examining him to get to the truth or the credibility of what he actually had to say, I’d say Robinson probably takes the view that the credibility of the “investigation” is already compromised beyond a joke.