Unanswered questions around Nama and Project Eagle deal

Findings of Northern Ireland Finance Committee suggest a minimalist approach to public accountability by those involved in sale

 

The report of the Northern Ireland Finance Committee reveals both how little we know about Project Eagle – the package of Northern Ireland property loans sold by the National Asset Management Agency (Nama) – and how much we still need to find out.

The Stormont committee, which spent eight months examining the £1.24 billion (€1.59 billion) sale to Cerberus, a US company, has raised in its report many concerns about the transaction but has reached few conclusions.

It says the facts surrounding the Project Eagle sale “remain unclear”. And that is not surprising given the unwillingness of so many key witnesses to appear before the committee.

These include Frank Cushnahan, a former Nama adviser and a potential beneficiary of a large fee payment as a result of the sale. The evidence of 18 witnesses needs to be heard, the committee says, and it has recommended that the review be continued – by its successor committee – following elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly in May.

Nama has yet to comment on the report and it chose not to appear before the Stormont committee and nor did Finance Minister Michael Noonan press Nama to do so. In consequence, the public in both parts of Ireland have been denied the detailed explanation they fully deserve of many controversial aspects of the Project Eagle sale. The committee concluded that Nama needed to provide further information and clarification about the sale process.

Why, as the committee has asked, did neither Mr Noonan nor the Nama board stop the sale process when first advised by Pimco – a potential purchaser that later withdrew its bid – of its concern about the large fees sought for the transaction?

This matters given both the size and importance of the property sale to the Northern Ireland economy and its financial significance for taxpayers in the Republic. Nama’s reticence on this issue, as indeed on some others, and Mr Noonan’s failure to clarify matters, reflect a minimalist approach to public accountability. This is hard to understand and difficult to defend.

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