The allegation made by the National Asset Management Agency last week that it is the subject of a "carefully orchestrated operation" intended to "damage Nama and thereby undermine the financial interests of the State" is a pretty serious one.
The fact that it was made to an Oireachtas Committee by Nama's two most senior officials is also very significant. Neither man is known for hyperbole or flights of fancy. Nama chairman Frank Daly is former head of the revenue commissioners and has a reputation for toughness and straight talking.
Chief executive Brendan McDonagh is judged by the Government to be rational enough to manage one of the world’s largest property companies, an organisation whose success or failure could have dramatic consequences for the national finances. When he speaks, news agencies report what he says around the world.
Strange then that the members of the public accounts committee showed little interest in finding out what the two men thought was going on and instead preferred to rehearse various allegations made against the agency in media outlets, primarily the papers owned by Independent News and Media. The members have been rewarded with plenty of coverage in these papers, including five pages in the Sunday Independent.
Amazingly, none of the seven PAC members who turned up bothered to ask McDonagh or Daly who they believed was orchestrating the campaign to which they referred. There are several possible explanations for this.
One is that they were lazy. One of the main criticisms of the Oireachtas committee system is that the politicians who populate them are more concerned with seeing their names in newspapers than in actually getting to the bottom of complex issues. Another possibility is they did not particularly want to go where that line of questioning would have taken them.
Between the lines
Regardless of the reason, they did not ask the question, so we are left to read between the lines of Daly and McDonagh's statements. And the two men certainly seem to believe property developer Paddy McKillen is somewhere in the mix.
McDonagh pointed out that some of the allegations surfacing last week could really only have come from documents made available by Nama under the legal discovery process during McKillen's long-running battle with British businessmen David and Frederick Barclay for control of three hotels in London.
McDonagh also told the PAC that earlier this year Mr McKillen took a case against Nama, claiming it provided confidential information and assistance to the Barclays. He said the claim was based on the unlawful use of documents McKillen obtained under discovery and "we understand from descriptions that excerpts from some of these documents may have been circulated to certain Oireachtas members and to certain media outlets".
Little love lost
There is clearly little love lost between McKillen and Nama. Having exhausted pretty much every avenue open to him in the UK courts, McKillen has now brought his fight with the Barclays to the Irish courts and has instigated several actions. One of these is aimed at stopping the potential transfer of his borrowings from IBRC – the former Anglo Irish bank – into Nama, from where they could be sold to his arch-enemies.
McKillen's central role in the controversy leaves the dominant shareholder of Independent News and Media, Denis O'Brien, in a tricky position. He is a close friend of McKillen's and has provided him with support in his battle with the Barclay brothers. O'Brien may also become a client of Nama shortly as his borrowings from IBRC could transfer into Nama next year if he cannot reach an agreement with the liquidators of IBRC to buy them back.
The suggestion that newspapers over which O’Brien has influence are taking part in an orchestrated campaign to undermine the national finances and advance the interests of his friend is not one he would be happy to leave go unchallenged. The notion that he would use his control of the country’s largest media organisation in such a fashion is no doubt abhorrent to him.
The second largest shareholder in the business, Dermot Desmond, would no doubt be equally unhappy with the notion that the group was letting itself be used in such a way.
Finally, one suspects Paddy McKillen himself would be appalled if his two friends suffered some sort of unjustified collateral damage as a result of his being sucked into the controversy.
The chairman of the PAC, John McGuinness, seems to have the bit between his teeth on this one. Perhaps he might offer all three men the chance to appear before his committee in the new year to set the record straight.