Harry McGee: Sure-footed Noonan comes unstuck over Project Eagle

Failure to disclose meeting means he will not emerge unscathed from controversy

On October 6th last year, Minister for Finance Michael Noonan appeared as a witness before the the Public Accounts Committee inquiry into Project Eagle.

Noonan's appearance lasted almost five hours during which he outlined his involvement in the controversial disposal by the National Assets Management Agency (Nama) of over 800 properties held by Northern debtors for £1.1 billion sterling.

Noonan gave a typically flinty and unflinching performance. The point that was most at issue was over his powers of intervention and whether or not he had exerted, or succumbed to, political pressure.

It was clear that he could not have intervened in Project Eagle, or stopped the process even if he had misgivings. Section 9 of the Nama Act specifically provides that the asset disposal agency is wholly independent in its operations and functions.

“You’re a wily old fox at talking down the clock,” a PAC member said when the Minister had returned to the same formula of words for the umpteenth time.

Nothing that Noonan said at the committee resulted in political damage to him. What did result in political damage to him was what he he neglected to tell it.

Several weeks later, the Department of Finance supplied supplementary information to the PAC. One document disclosed that Noonan had in fact met senior executives of Cerberus in Dublin on the eve of the final deadline for bids on Project Eagle.

This came as a complete surprise to members of the committee.

Why did Noonan not disclose the reason for this meeting taking place? Well his response had echoes of a note struck by one of his predecessors as Fine Gael leader, John Bruton, two decades earlier. In 1995, Bruton had resorted to a Jesuitical "you did not ask the right question" when he was challenged over an alleged failure to disclose information.

Relevant information

The majority of the committee were clearly of the view that this was salient and relevant information that he should have volunteered. It was a bit much to expect them to rack their brains and frame a question for every conceivable action taken by the Minister.

Did anything turn on it? In all probability, very little. Cerberus was chaired by John Snow, a former US treasury secretary. Noonan argued it was entirely appropriate for him to meet with Snow and with representatives of a large firm investing in Irish assets. He pointed out that Project Eagle was raised by Snow but the minutes of the meeting recorded that it was more appropriate for Cerberus to discuss that with Nama.

On the other hand, Cerberus’ meeting with the Minister on the eve of the bid deadline might give rise to a perception of preferential treatment.

In the round, the likelihood of it having any influence was remote. That said, given all the uproar we have witnessed around Project Eagle since then, the timing was, at best, ill-advised.

That meeting, and the committee learning belatedly of it, has led to one of the most hardest-hitting (and politically-charged) of the 42 conclusions made in the PAC’s report on Monday.

“The committee considers it was not procedurally appropriate for the Minister for Finance to meet with senior Cerberus representatives on the day before the Project Eagle bid closing date.”

‘Procedurally appropriate’

The phrase “procedurally appropriate” is an interesting one. It is not a direct or personal criticism of the Minister, rather a pointing out of a flaw or shortcoming in procedures.

Even with that proviso, there is no doubt the finding stung the veteran Fine Gael Minister. The four Fine Gael members of the committee, as well as Labour's Alan Kelly, adamantly opposed this conclusion, looking for the more minor "it was not procedurally advisable". For the first time in its 94-year history, the proudly non-partisan PAC split along party lines and agreed the stronger conclusion on a split of 8-5.

The press conference was dominated by political bickering between members of the PAC over what was, comparatively, a side show.

Noonan himself protested about this conclusion in a letter sent to the committee before its final publication. He argued he had not been given an opportunity to respond to the conclusion and, as such, was denied fairness and due process.

But why had he not mentioned it? In his letter, there was a Brutonesque reference to records released under the Freedom of Information Act in late 2015 which referred to the meeting. The problem was that committee members had not set sight on those records.

In terms of a transgressions, it is strictly minor, compared with some of the flagrant chicanery that was going on around Project Eagle. That said, it means that Noonan will not come out of this debacle unscathed.

Harry McGee is political correspondent