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"You're a wily old fox at talking down the clock" - Noonan answers questions over Nama Project Eagle sale

Noonan’s appearance before PAC is rare for a sitting minister, though not unheard of.

Noonan in front of the PAC today.
Noonan in front of the PAC today.
Image: Oireachtas TV

Updated at 4.30 pm

MINISTER FOR FINANCE Michael Noonan has said that there was no political pressure put on Nama during the controversial sale of its Northern Ireland loan portfolio to US firm Cerberus in 2014.

Appearing before the Dáil Public Accounts Committee (PAC) this afternoon, Noonan said the sale of the Northern Ireland loan portfolio (dubbed Project Eagle) was the decision of the Nama board alone and he had no legal grounding to be involved in the process.

A recent report from the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG) said the agency lost out on €220 million from the sale. Nama “categorically rejected” findings of the report.

A statutory commission of investigation into the sale has already been agreed to by the government. It will be headed by either a serving or retired judge.

Noonan today addressed questions around whether he should have intervened to halt the sale of the Project Eagle portfolio, when one of the bidders – American firm Pimco – withdrew from the process, citing a potential conflict of interest.

Nama was informed by Pimco in March 2014 that a former member of its Northern Ireland Advisory Board – Frank Cushnahan – was due to receive an advisory fee if they were successful in securing the Project Eagle portfolio.

Nama said that upon learning this, the board asked Pimco to withdraw from the sale.

Noonan was informed by Nama board chairman Frank Daly that the organisation was going to go ahead with the bidding process in spite of this late conflict arising.

“The Chairman was not, in any respect, requesting permission to proceed with the sale nor was he required to,” Noonan said before the PAC today.

He was notifying me of issues that had arisen and of the Board’s considered decision to proceed.
Suggestions that I, as the Minister for Finance, should have interfered with Nama’s commercial decision and called a halt to the Board approved sales process fundamentally misunderstands Nama’s independent mandate and my role as the Minister for Finance.

Noonan said it would be illegal under the terms of the Nama Act for him to interfere with a sale.

Sinn Féin TD Mary Lou McDonald said that when he became aware of Pimco intervening, should the minister not have interfered as “clearly the process had been corrupted”.

Noonan responded that “as far as Nama was concerned then that issue wasn’t relevant”.

mlou Mary Lou McDonald. Source: Oireachtas TV

Political pressure

Noonan said repeatedly there was “no political pressure on NAMA regarding this sale”.

When questioned by Social Democrats TD Catherine Murphy over whether he formed “a view” on the withdrawal of Pimco from the sales process, Noonan said:

“Of course I had concerns about it.”

Because I had been briefed on the basis that things were going well and there could be a sale on the portfolio.

Fianna Fáil’s Marc MacSharry mentioned comments made by Nama chairman Frank Daly last week when he said the board had “decided to listen to the wishes of both governments (Northern Ireland and Republic)” when it came to the sale.

MacSharry said whether the taking on of the concerns of both governments upset Nama’s remit to get the best value for the Irish taxpayer.

Again, Noonan said there was no political pressure put on the organisation.

“Nothing that the Northern Ireland Executive did in my mind contributed to reducing the price,” he said.

When Noonan began to answer MacSharry’s questions around Nama with a lengthy answer, MacSharry said to him:

 You’re a wily old fox at talking down the clock.

Noonan said that there was pressure on Nama coming from the European Central Bank (ECB) to sell on its assets, but this related to the entire of its portfolio and not just Project Eagle.

Cath murph Catherine Murphy Source: Oireachtas TV

When questioned by Sinn Féin TD David Cullinane over whether he had spoken to Nama about speeding up the sale of its assets, Noonan said he had spoken to the organisation, but didn’t “direct them”.

“I didn’t direct them I asked for their advice,” said Noonan.

“Well that’s semantics,” said Cullinane.

Interference

Noonan said that even if he was legally able to interfere with the sale “there was no evidence that such interference would have been in the interest of the taxpayer”.

Noonan said he had “full confidence” in Nama and the C&AG.

“Neither the C&AG’s audit of NAMA’s annual accounts nor the recently published value for money report have asserted that the sales process should have been halted,” he said.

When question by Labour TD Alan Kelly how he could reconcile his confidence in both organisations in light of the dispute, Noonan said:

“One can have confidence in two organisations even when they don’t agree on every detail.

There’s a conflict – Its up to you [the PAC] in my view to resolve the conflict.

Kelly Alan Kelly at the PAC today. Source: Oireachtas TV

Leak

Noonan also addressed issues surrounding aspects of the report appearing before its publication in the Irish Times last month.

Reports mentioned that the C&AG report had found “irregularities” in the sale process during Project Eagle. There was no mention of irregularities in the sale process when the final report was published.

“I have no evidence that there was a leak of the document,” said Noonan.

“Certainly someone had knowledge of the finding about the sum of money that the C&AG put in.”

Noonan said that there was a mention of “irregularities” in the news reports, which turned out to be unfounded.

“That was untrue,” he said. “The only accurate bit of the leak was the sum of money.”

“I don’t know if that was based on a document or a verbal hint to a journalist,” he said.

Kelly said it was “pretty scary” if a leak had come from the Department of Finance around the report.

Rare appearance

Noonan announced two weeks ago he would face the committee following pressure from opposition politicians over the sale of the loan book.

Noonan’s appearance before PAC is rare for a sitting minister, though not unheard of.

PAC chairman Sean Fleming said earlier that Noonan is “one of the links in the chain” of the sale process and it is therefore necessary to question him.

PAC began its hearings into the sale last week, with Nama chairman Frank Daly defending it.

Daly said that Nama “acted commercially” at all times.

nama-frank-daly Nama chairman Frank Daly appearing before the PAC last week.

“Nama does not believe that… the sale represented a probable loss to Irish taxpayers,” he said.

He also said that the price set on the Northen Ireland loanbook was voted on unanimously by the board of directors and no one else.

“Nobody influenced Nama on this,” he said.

With reporting from Paul Hosford

Read: Nama says it acted in the “interest of the Irish taxpayers” at all times during Project Eagle sale

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About the author:

Cormac Fitzgerald

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