WATERFORD TD John Deasy is no fan of his boss, Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Kenny is no fan of Deasy, either. The animus between them dates back to 2004, when Kenny dispatched Deasy into the wilderness because of his refusal to bow to the country’s new smoking laws in the Dáil bar. An outspoken and often inconvenient critic of the Taoiseach, Deasy earned himself the mantle of Fine Gael rebel.
Two weeks ago, Deasy castigated Kenny for capitulating to Fianna Fáil demands for a Commission of Inquiry into the sale of Nama’s Northern Ireland loan book, known as Project Eagle. He accused Kenny of throwing “good public servants” in Nama “under a bus” in the controversy over the sale of the agency’s Northern Ireland loans portfolio, Project Eagle. Mr Deasy also accused Mr Kenny of making decisions as to keep the Government together, instead of for the good of the country.
Mr Deasy was the vice-chairman of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) in the last Dáil, when it examined the Project Eagle controversy. He said at the time that it was wrong of Nama not to halt the sales process, once it was alerted to alleged “success fees” in relation to the deal.
Pound for pound, Deasy is one of the Dáil’s most substantial politicians. Opinionated, articulate, and intelligent, he rarely runs with the herd and is often out on his own on big issues. Such independence of thought means Deasy is worth hearing.
Now, I have been a longstanding observer of all things Nama and view the super-quango with a suspicious eye. Project Eagle appeared to reveal fears I’ve had about Nama.
For many months, Independent TD, Mick Wallace, and others, have sought to raise the political heat on Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan, and on the Taoiseach, about the Project Eagle sale.
Under privilege in the Dáil, Wallace, in July, 2015, used the platform of leaders’ questions to highlight the Project Eagle sale: “The Northern Ireland loan portfolio, Project Eagle, involving over 850 properties with a par value of €4.5bn, was sold to US private equity firm, Cerberus Capital, for less than €1.5bn — a surprise winner of the tender. The Tánaiste, in June, 2012, following consultation with Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan, and Mr Sammy Wilson, MLA, Nama reappointed Mr Frank Cushnahan and Mr Brian Rowntree to the [Nama] Northern Ireland Advisory Committee.”
“A few weeks later, a report by a Northern Ireland auditor’s office seriously questioned the stewardship of the Northern Ireland housing executive, which led to the resignation of Brian Rowntree and Frank Cushnahan. The report found breaches of a housing executive’s guidelines, in the sale of at least 27 land deals, executive board given wrong or no information relating to key property deals, favoured property speculators were allowed to buy land well under market value,” Wallace added.
Both Nama and Noonan rejected Wallace’s concerns, saying that the sales process was handled correctly. Those denials and rejections continued for many months.
Last month, a BBC Spotlight programme broadcast secretly recorded footage of Cushnahan accepting a £40,000 (about €48,000) cash payment from a Nama borrower. The recording was made in a hospital car park in 2012, when Cushnahan was still working as an adviser to Nama.
A recording of a conversation between Cushnahan and property developer, John Miskelly, was broadcast. The men are then heard discussing the £40,000 payment and Miskelly assures Cushnahan no-one else knows about the meeting.
Many of the claims in the programme were disputed by Nama, but it has since referred Cushnahan to the Standards in Public Office (SIPO).
After Shane Ross and Finian McGrath expressed their outrage at Cabinet, and under pressure from Fianna Fail, a weakened Kenny relented to calls for a Commission of Inquiry. Two weeks ago, the recent report into Project Eagle, by the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG), Seamus McCarthy, found considerable problems with the sale, by Nama, of its northern loan book. The report, by the State’s financial watchdog into the sale of NAMA’s Northern Ireland portfolio, has found that the agency incurred a potential loss to the taxpayer of £190m on the sale, after previous write-downs were included. The report questioned how the loan portfolio was valued and marketed for sale.
NAMA responded by saying the key finding of the report was “fundamentally unsound and unstable, and cannot be left unchallenged”.
Last Thursday, Nama and the C&AG squared off at the Public Accounts Committee (PAC). Ten or so hours of turgid, technical hearings did little to enlighten us on what went on in the sales process, and certainly no killer blow was landed on Nama.
Yes, Nama’s chairman, Frank Daly, said he would tweak a number of things around the Project Eagle process, but said that, on the whole, he would do the same again. Sinn Fein’s Mary Lou McDonald was not convinced, accusing the process of being corrupt.
Enter John Deasy: “There is no real justification for a Commission of Investigation. There was about eight or nine hours of shit talk at the committee, without anything new coming out of it. What a joke.”
“Now we are in a position where we have an academic argument over valuations between Nama and the C&AG. Is that the basis for a Commission of Investigation? No, of course it isn’t,” he added.
“This is pure political expediency. This was Kenny keeping the Fianna Fáilers happy. I think there are some politicians who are now saying this is not stacking up,” he said.
“Nama has done a great job and this is why builders have been bitching for five years, but they couldn’t do that in the North, where developers weren’t paying up. They were probably delighted to get the price they did for the bundle,” he added.
Deasy said the C&AG said Cushnahan should have been dealt with earlier, and Nama admitted that. However, the C&AG concluded that Cushnahan did not have access to confidential information and the sales process was not tainted. Deasy again was scathing in his criticism of Kenny and Noonan in relenting to the inquiry: “Nama did their job and because it suits you and because there is some heat, you shaft them. The story here is ‘rotten Government to throw these guys under a bus, while, at the same time, say they are great guys’.”
“This is political convenience, shallowness, and really there is no justification for this Commission of Investigation, which, in themselves, are a dime a dozen these days. This one definitely doesn’t add up. So I ask Michael Noonan: ‘what is the justification or rationale for doing this? Why are you doing this when you previously said there was no basis for such an inquiry’,” he added.
“If Kenny and Noonan wanted to change Nama, they have had five or six years to do it and they haven’t,” Deasy said. Deasy is correct to say that the weak government forced Kenny’s hand on the establishment of the Commission of Investigation. Many legitimate questions have been raised about the probity of Project Eagle, but a commission may not be the way to go, as Deasy says.