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Martin McGuinness points finger firmly at the DUP at Public Accounts Committee hearing on Project Eagle

The Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland has been giving his side of the story regarding the Project Eagle debacle.

mmc Martin McGuinness

THE DEPUTY FIRST Minister of Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness, has appeared in front of the Dáil Public Accounts Committee to give his side of the story regarding the sale by Nama of the Project Eagle loan portfolio in Northern Ireland for €1.6 billion in April 2014.

The meeting of PAC was specifically to discuss the report of the Irish Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG) into the sale of that portfolio, first released in September.

Although McGuinness was Deputy First Minister throughout the process, he claims he was kept very much in the dark over the sale by Sinn Féin’s partners in government the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) and that all cross-border discussions regarding the sale were conducted between Irish Finance Minister Michael Noonan, Northern Finance Minister Sammy Wilson and former Northern First Minister Peter Robinson.

The controversy regarding the loan sale first began in June 2013 when Wilson contacted Noonan to say that interested buyers had been in touch with him regarding the  sale of the property portfolio.

Difficult year

“This question starts with Sammy Wilson, who never communicated with me anything to do with the sale of Project Eagle. All conversations were with Peter Robinson,” McGuinness told the PAC today.

who Alan Farrell

2013 when all this began was a very difficult year in the life of the Northern Executive.
At that time I had a serious conversation with Peter Robinson and came to an agreement with him regarding the sale of the Maze Prison site, which was to be one of the finest real estate areas in Western Europe. After some days or weeks he sent a letter, not to me, but to his MLAs saying that was in effect reneging on that agreement.
That brought about a very bad, appalling even, situation in government due to a gross act of bad faith on the part of the DUP.

McGuinness said that at the time people had advocated to him that he should “bring about the collapse of the institutions”, something he was “not willing to do”.

He said that from that moment Peter Robinson “did not include me” in discussions regarding Project Eagle. “It is a joint office, I do not believe that was respected.”

Underlining his point, McGuinness said “we are all only here thanks to the enormous contribution made by Mick Wallace in making this public”.

He insisted that the news that US property group Pimco had made a payment of €15 million in “success fees” to, amongst others, Northern Irish businessman Frank Cushnahan in relation to the sale “came as much of a surprise to me as it did to anybody”.

He said the fact that meetings were taking place without his knowledge did not surprise him.

No bad thoughts

“There were no bad thoughts in my head, I just thought it was highly irregular. But relations were bad in government, and they remained so until the fresh start agreement which came about at the beginning of this year,” McGuinness told Fine Gael TD Alan Farrell.

McGuinness said that claims that he had no knowledge regarding a statement of intent sent between Pimco and the Northern Executive in January 2014 were “absolutely accurate”.

“My personal concern was the very real prospect that if the northern portfolio ended up in the wrong hands there could be a ‘firesale’ of property in the north,” he said. “All I can do is express my total dissatisfaction with how the situation was handled.”

“Quite clearly if we (Sinn Féin) had been as involved in the process as others were we could have come to our own conclusions,” he added, stating that he has his “own views” on the entire process.

JM Josepha Madigan

“I’d be an idiot if I didn’t have such views,” he said.

It is clear to me that Peter Robinson met with Pimco. I knew nothing about that. On 25 March 2014 Peter Robinson met with Cerberus. An hour-and-a-half later he and I were at a job announcement in Belfast, and he never mentioned that Dan Quayle (former US vice president and chairman of Cerberus) met with him that morning. If people think that isn’t unusual, then I don’t know.
The Deputy First Minister insisted that if a recording of a conference call between him, Peter Robinson and Michael Noonan were listened to it would show his circumspection regarding the issue given “the fact I was not involved in conversations I knew had to be going on”.I’m not concerned with or suggesting wrongdoing on part of Peter Robinson, or Michael Noonan, or even Frank Cushnahan, I’m just saying that I did not have the knowledge.

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McGuinness faced criticism from Fine Gael TD Josepha Madigan who suggested his “hands-off” approach to Project Eagle was “very incongruent with the role of Deputy First Minister”.

Not credible

“I didn’t say that it had nothing to do with me,” McGuinness replied. “I’m just saying that I didn’t have the knowledge.”

Labour TD Alan Kelly meanwhile said that McGuinness’ statements of ignorance of the situation are “not believable and not credible” and said that his claiming a lack of knowledge of the situation suggested a “willful neglect almost, a sort of wishful ignorance” on McGuinness’ part.

16/11/2016. Pictured is Sinn Fein Deputy First Min McGuinness is all smiles on the Leinster House plinth prior to his appearance at the PAC Source: Leah Farrell

The Deputy First Minister rejected those claims as “political point-scoring”, something Kelly responded was exactly what McGuinness was involved with himself at the committee in that he was putting distance between Sinn Féin and the Project Eagle scandal.

The issue was also raised by committee chairman Sean Fleming that Peter Robinson has not as yet made himself available to appear before the PAC.

Fleming confirmed that a second letter of invitation was issued to Robinson after he said that he had not received an initial such letter.

“That has been couriered to him (Robinson) now at his home address and he has been in touch to acknowledge that he has received it,” Fleming said.

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