Claims made by independent TD Mick Wallace set off a media storm around the sale of NAMA’s Northern Ireland assets.
Colm Heatley looks at the unfolding financial scandal that looks set to run for some time.
When NAMA announced the sale of its £4.5 billion Northern Ireland property portfolio, Project Eagle, in April 2014 it seemed progress had been made and some uncertainty had been taken out of the property market in the region.
After claims during July in the Dáil by Independent TD Mick Wallace that £7 million was in an Isle of Man bank account, earmarked for an unknown Northern Ireland politician as part of the NAMA deal, the National Crime Agency has been tasked with investigating what exactly happened in the deal.
It’s certainly proved to be an opaque deal which has raised concerns and it seems the investigation may run for some time. In July NAMA’s former Northern Ireland advisor Brian Rowntree called for a full inquiry into how the body conducted the sale of its portfolio in the region.
What is known is that NAMA sold the portfolio to Cerberus Capital Management in 2014 having opened up the loan book to a competitive tender process and while it didn’t say at the time how much of a discount was applied, it has since emerged that it was around 60 per cent of the face value of the portfolio, or €1.6 billion.
The claim at the centre of Mick Wallace’s allegation, that £7 million was earmarked for a politician, hasn’t been proved but what has been established is that the money was diverted into the account by Ian Coulter, then managing partner at Tughans law firm in Belfast.
Tughans said that Coulter left the company in January 2015 after the account had been discovered and that the Law Society was called into investigate but has been unable to establish what precisely took place. Subsequent media investigations have shown that the £7 million was earmarked not for legal professionals but for ‘fixers’ who helped secure the NAMA deal. The PSNI said no report of the activity was made to them.
In a further twist it emerged that PIMCO, rivals to Cerebrus for the Northern Ireland portfolio, raised concerns with NAMA about the integrity of the selling process. It is alleged that both Coulter and Frank Cushnahan had made unsolicited approaches to PIMCO about getting a deal together for the loan book. Cushnahan, like Coulter, was a former advisor to NAMA and according to an ex-colleague, Brian Rowntree, had access to commercially sensitive information. NAMA though refutes that allegation.
Both Coulter and Cushnahan deny any wrong doing and there is no suggestion that Cushnahan had any involvement in the £7 million Isle of Man account. Tughans said the money was later retrieved.
Cushnahan is a former banker who in 2001 was awarded a CBE for services to the Northern Ireland economy and now specializes in management consultancy. He first came to the attention of the DUP in 2005 when he prepared a report on the Northern Ireland economy. A year later he was appointed as a director for the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister.
In 2013 it emerged that Sammy Wilson, then finance minister, had lobbied his Republic of Ireland counterpart, the late Brian Lenihan, to appoint Cushnahan as an advisor to NAMA in Northern Ireland.
Over the past month it has also been revealed that Cushnahan had a self-contained office in Tughans Belfast premises.
In addition, it has also emerged that First Minister Peter Robinson and others met Cerberus at Stormont less than a fortnight before the NAMA deal was announced. Former Tughans managing partner Ian Coulter was among those present. Cerberus issued a statement the meeting was official and had been flagged in the media.
However, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said it couldn’t have been an official meeting as he wasn’t aware of it and the OFMDFM office requires that both ministers be informed of such occasions. “I was not aware of and had not agreed to any such meeting,’’ said McGuinness. “If such a meeting took place it was not a formal or official meeting as it was not processed through the office of OFMDFM.”
For his part the DUP leader Peter Robinson has denied any wrong doing and there is no suggestion otherwise. Robinson emphatically denies any involvement or knowledge of the £7 million Isle of Man account. Cerberus, whose chairman of global investments, Dan Quayle, attended the meeting, insist it was an official occasion.
“Not one penny was coming to anybody in my family or my party as a result of this deal,’’ Robinson told the BBC. “All of the ministers who were involved, whether they were in my party or not, the only thing that they were ever going to get out of this was to see on the skyline that the building cranes were moving again.’’
Robinson’s son, Gareth, who runs the PR firm Verbatim Communications was paid by Ian Coulter to manage an event run by Tughans in 2012. Gareth Robinson said his company had no involvement with the NAMA deal, while the First Minister said his family is the victim of a “witch hunt.’’
Sinn Fein’s Daithí McKay, Chair of the Assembly’s Finance and Personnel Committee, says there are irregularities in the whole process which need to be addressed, including meetings between DUP ministers and NAMA and other interested parties, which he claims his party wasn’t notified of.
Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness also said that he wasn’t aware of a letter sent by Peter Robinson to NAMA which, according to NAMA chairman Frank Daly, was a letter of intent which seemed to detail an agreement between the Northern Ireland Executive and PIMCO.
With the National Crime Agency investigating the circumstances of the deal and the Stormont finance committee scrutinising events surrounding it, the issue is clearly going to run for some time.