N. Ireland Politics

Nama 'coaching': Committee asks Ó Muilleoir to step aside

Man watches finance committee - chaired by Emma Little-Pengelly - on TV screen at Stormont, 23 August 2016 Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption Emma Little-Pengelly became chairwoman of the finance committee following May's assembly election

Stormont's Finance Committee has asked the finance minister to temporarily step aside during an investigation into witness coaching.

It met following allegations its former Sinn Féin chairman coached a blogger who was set to give evidence.

Committee members said Finance Minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir should step aside while the exchanges were investigated.

But Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness has insisted that Mr Ó Muilleoir will remain in his position.

Mr McGuinness said: "Máirtín enjoys my full support as finance minister and he will not be stepping aside on the basis of calls from opposition parties, much less calls from the DUP."

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Ulster Unionist, SDLP and TUV members of the committee all voted for the action, while Sinn Féin member Caitríona Ruane said Mr Ó Muilleoir had done nothing wrong and voted against.

The committee also voted to write to the former chairman, Daithí McKay, who resigned as a Sinn Féin MLA last week after the Nama coaching revelations were made public.

The finance committee is now chaired by the DUP's Emma Little-Pengelly.

She told Tuesday's specially-convened meeting of the committee that there were a number of questions that required answers to ensure confidence in the committee following the claims.

"Any inquiry must be evidence-based and fair to everybody," said Mrs Little-Pengelly.

She also said it would be important to establish if the communications between Daithí McKay and another party member with loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson extended to "other members of Sinn Féin" and if telephone conversations or meetings also took place.

The DUP has formally complained to the police and to the assembly's Standards Commissioner, Douglas Bain, about the allegations, which were revealed by the BBC's Nolan Show and The Irish News.

Mr Ó Muilleoir was directly referenced in one message from Sinn Féin member Thomas O'Hara's Twitter account to Mr Bryson, which said: "I'm trying to establish what Máirtín or someone could jump on and say there's no way we can turn him (Jamie Bryson) away, this is credible, relevant and in the public interest."

'Person A'

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Media captionMartin McGuinness has said Daithí McKay 'was working alone'

On Monday, Mr Ó Muilleoir told the BBC he would not stand down from his post., dismissing attempts to link him to the scandal as "petty party politicking".

During Tuesday's committee hearing, the DUP's Jim Wells said it was "inconceivable" that Mr Ó Muilleoir did not know about the communication.

"There is a cloud of doubt as to the veracity of the statement he made yesterday where he said he knew nothing," said Mr Wells.

Sinn Féin MLA Caitríona Ruane defended Mr Ó Muilleoir and said she believed any investigation should be left to the assembly's standards commissioner.

"Let the person whose remit it is investigate," she told the Stormont finance committee.

'Bad bank' scandal

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Media captionNama scandal: Ó Muilleoir 'won't step down' over coaching

Mr Ó Muilleoir denies having any knowledge of the messages sent ahead of Mr Bryson's appearance before the committee's inquiry into the £1.2bn sale of Nama's Northern Ireland property portfolio.

Nama is the Republic of Ireland's "bad bank", set up to deal with toxic loans after the 2008 property crash.

The finance committee started investigating the 2014 sale to a US investment firm following an allegation made in the Dáil (Irish parliament) that a politician or political party in Northern Ireland stood to profit from the loan sale.

Last September, Mr Bryson used a meeting of the committee to name former DUP leader Peter Robinson as the individual he referred to as "Person A" in relation to the scandal.

The then first minister of Northern Ireland strongly denied he had sought to benefit in any way from the deal.

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