In late September, loyalist blogger, James Bryson, told a public session of the Stormont finance committee that Frank Cushnahan along with solicitor Ian Coulter formerly of Belfast firm Tughans, prominent accountant David Watters, developer Andrew Creighton and DUP leader Peter Robinson were to receive substantial sums from the sale of Project Eagle.
Cushnahan was involved in the preparation of the Eagle portfolio in his capacity as a member of the NIAC of NAMA while Watters had intimate knowledge of the individual properties and their potential values and his firm McClure Watters provided advisory services to the agency.
While each of the five has denied the extraordinary claims about alleged kickbacks there is a view that the announcement last month by Robinson of his retirement from politics next year was influenced in no small part by the Project Eagle affair.
Robinson’s withdrawal in September from the power-sharing government threatened to bring down the political institutions in the wake of various crises including alleged IRA involvement in the killing of Belfast man, Kevin McGuigan, the earlier killing of Sinn Fein member Jock Davison and an ongoing battle with Sinn Fein over welfare cuts. By November, these and other issues were resolved after intensive discussions involving the Northern parties and the Irish and British governments and during which the “fee payments” allegations hung like a dark cloud over the first minister.
In a mid-September statement after Robinson was named as the intended recipient of a £7.5 million sum lodged by Coulter in an Isle of Man account in connection with the Project Eagle sale, Sinn Féin leader, Gerry Adams made it clear that his party had serious questions for the DUP leader that would not go away anytime soon.
Speaking at a public meeting in Drogheda in response to the initial reluctance of unionists to participate in all-party talks, Adams remarked: “if Sinn Féin adopted the same approach as the unionist parties then there would not be a political process or political institutions in the north. The unionist parties’ attitude to the two murders in Belfast and to the recent revelations about the sell-off of NAMA’s northern loan book shows their ad hoc attitude to the political institutions.
In July, serious concerns arose around the sell-off by NAMA of its northern loan book – valued at £4.5 billion – for a third of that amount, amid allegations that a senior politician in the North was to benefit from this.
Sinn Féin could have decided at that point to walk away from the Executive. We didn’t. We asserted the primacy of due process and the need for these very serious allegations of political corruption to be fully investigated properly by the relevant Assembly and policing agencies.
In a comment that went largely unmentioned in the Dublin media he continued: “The sell-off of NAMAs northern loan book involves both the Minister for Finance in Dublin as well as senior ministers in the North. The allegations of wrong doing are very serious”.
The talks ended six weeks later with a deal on welfare and spending as well as policing issues and the unexpected announcement by Robinson that he is to leave the stage in May before the assembly elections.
In late September, Adams also met with the Office of the New York State Comptroller which has $50m invested in Cerberus to brief them on the controversy surrounding Project Eagle. It is understood that the Comptroller then raised the issue with senior executives of Cerberus who were apparently not impressed by the Sinn Fein leader’s intervention. Neither was Peter Robinson by all accounts.
Sources told Village that these two events were intended to telegraph to Robinson that Sinn Féin would not look kindly on any Robinson NAMA delinquencies, if he did not move expeditiously to get the Executive back on track.
Questions for NAMA
• What has NAMA done to verify that Ronnie Hanna did not have meetings with Cushnahan, Watters and the financial institutions involved in Project Eagle?
• Has NAMA asked the financial institutions involved to verify this? • Has NAMA asked Hanna and Cushnahan to verify this. There is no indication as yet that he has even responded to far less detailed queries from NAMA sent to him by letter on November 19 2015? More generally:
• Why are so many properties contained in NAMA’s typical project portfolios, militating against purchased by the public who funded the bailout?
• Why are so many of the projects sold at egregious discounts in a market that is among the most bullish in Europe?
• What tax right-offs to developers benefit from when they resell former NAMA properties?