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

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty