Máirtín Ó Muilleoir finds himself battling on Nama, Brexit fronts
Minister for Finance under pressure to resign is due to visit Interface’s Lurgan plant
North’s Minister for Finance Máirtín Ó Muilleoir: when he first became Minister back in May he spoke of the “great responsibility” of the job and said it was “not a role I will take lightly”. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire
The North’s Minister for Finance Máirtín Ó Muilleoir will be keen to ensure there are no slip-ups this week during a scheduled visit to the Lurgan plant of an American-owned manufacturer of commercial carpet tiles.
Interface, a key employer in Lurgan, is due to play host to Ó Muilleoir as part of an initiative that aims to give the North’s business community an opportunity to get up close and personal, so to speak, with Executive Ministers.
During the event, organised by the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce, Ó Muilleoir wants to update local businesses about what his department has been doing recently and probably talk about his own endeavours to, as he puts it, “maximise EU funds” as the Brexit clouds hang overhead.
But probably what the business community would be more interested in hearing about is whether Ó Muilleoir is likely to have the rug pulled from under his feet any time soon.
In the last seven days while carrying out the responsibilities of Minister for Finance, Ó Muilleoir has also repeatedly rejected calls to temporarily step aside – or resign – primarily because of the latest Nama-related drama to unfold in the North.
Leaked Twitter exchanges obtained by BBC NI and the Irish News between former Sinn Féin MLA Daithí McKay, the previous chairman of the ongoing Stormont inquiry into the sale of Nama’s Northern Ireland portfolio and the loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson, have cast a shadow over not only the work of the previous committee, but also the way Stormont operates behind the scenes.
It is claimed that the Twitter exchanges suggest McKay and another Sinn Féin member Thomas O’Hara coached Bryson before he appeared in front of the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Committee for Finance to give evidence about the North’s then first minister Peter Robinson. Robinson has consistently denied any wrongdoing.
Ó Muilleoir, who at the time was also a member of the committee that conducted the inquiry, is also referenced in the Twitter exchange.
The Minister for Finance has strenuously denied any knowledge of any communications between McKay, Bryson or O’Hara and has said accusations that he did, are “no more than petty party politicking”.
For Ó Muilleoir , who consistently and very loudly condemned Nama throughout the previous Stormont inquiry, these twittergate revelations are far from helpful as he continues less than four months into the job to try to win the support of the local business community.
One of his first actions as Minister was to release additional information to the current Stormont Committee for Finance relating to the Project Eagle sale in the “interests of transparency and public confidence”.
When he first became Minister back in May he spoke of the “great responsibility” of the job and said it was “not a role I will take lightly”.
He has embraced it with some enthusiasm – there has been no shortage of ministerial visits to small firms and inward investors alike while the North’s Assembly has been on holidays. But Ó Muilleoir is facing into a key period.
First up he has the “Brexit effect” to contend with including the questions about what could potentially happen to the €1.2 billion structural and investment fund programmes that the European Union had pledged to Northern Ireland to run between 2014 and 2020.
Then there is the looming likelihood of further intense budgetary pressures for the North as the UK government continues to regroup after the EU referendum vote. Ó Muilleoir is already hearing in person from firms who are deeply worried that the Executive may not be doing enough at the moment to make sure that Northern Ireland will get its own “bespoke arrangements” post-Brexit.
A coalition of 11 industry organisations, convened by the Derry Chamber of Commerce, have also urged the Executive to step up and provide “reassurance and confidence” at this time of economic uncertainty.
In the short term, however, Ó Muilleoir will focus on holding on to his job. The UUP, Alliance, SDLP and the Finance committee have all called for him to stand aside, as the Project Eagle inquiry takes yet another unexpected twist.