The air of mystery – and a whiff of suspicion – which continues to surround the biggest land deal in Northern Ireland in recent years, needs to be dispelled quickly. Parliamentary committees in Dublin and Belfast should seek to establish the facts without delay; and the police in both jurisdictions should now investigate the matter thoroughly. Project Eagle – the name given by the National Asset Management Agency (Nama) to its Northern Ireland loan book – was sold last year for €1.6 billion to Cerberus Capital Management.
Although the sale price involved a €200 million loss for Nama, its chairman, Frank Daly, in a recent appearance before the Public Accounts Committee, said the Nama board had given "a lot of attention" to the sale, and was satisfied with the price. Nevertheless, and given the sizeable loss incurred, whether selling the agency's total loan book in a single transaction was necessarily the best move could certainly be challenged.
However, an allegation made in the Dáil by Independent TD Mick Wallace, has raised some very worrying questions. He has claimed that close to €10 million was ". . . reportedly ear-marked for a Northern Ireland politician". The money was found in an offshore account during an audit of Tughans, a Belfast law firm. Tughans, which acted for Cerberus's legal advisers Brown Rudnick in the Nama sale, later acknowledged that a former managing partner, Ian Coulter, had diverted professional fees (due to the firm) to an account of which he was the sole beneficiary, and had done so without the firm's knowledge. That money has since been recovered.
Who paid the money into Mr Coulter's account? As with so many other aspects of this controversy, that too remains unclear. The Northern Ireland Advisory Committee (NIAC) was created as a substitute for a Northern Ireland seat on Nama's board. And it was designed to ease local fears of possible fire sales of Northern property. The role played by the two former members of Nama's NIAC, Brian Rowntree and Frank Cushnahan, has yet to be fully explained.