A shocking silence: The elephant in the room during the campaign has been Nama

Nama was the €72bn missing elephant of the election campaign, writes Political Editor

A shocking silence: The elephant in the room during the campaign has been Nama

During the three and a half-week campaign for the 2016 general election, we heard plenty of justifiable outrage about how the recovery is not being felt by everyone.

There was plenty of debate about the usual dominant issues like crime, health, law and order, and education.

But the deafening silence from all quarters regarding the €72bn elephant in the room that is Nama has been astonishing.

An entity which has been described as the largest single land portfolio in the world merited just one passing mention in the Fine Gael manifesto.

Just 26 words as to its long-term plan for the omnipresent beast that is Nama, which has a far greater say about Ireland’s recovery than anything else.

“We will work with Nama to repay all senior debt by 2018 and generate a surplus of €2bn by the time of its wind-down, in 2020” — that was the sum total of what Fine Gael is planning.

Fianna Fáil was little better, with just eight mentions of Nama in its manifesto, and most of those were about social housing rather than the wider plans for the agency.

There was not one question asked about it in any of the main television debates and it went without mention in most, if not all, press events.

Established in April 2009 by the late Brian Lenihan as a means of stripping all of the bad debts from the bailed-out banks and restoring credit back into the system, Nama has been engulfed in mystery and treated with suspicion from many quarters.

From the outset, it has had to counter accusations of being a bailout for developers and has been likened by government TDs and senators to North Korea.

Along the way, it has drawn the wrath of developers who were forced into Nama but who have since exited its clutches over its practices.

It was accused of trying to “intimidate” a government senator who had been a staunch critic of its secretive operations.

Labour senator Lorraine Higgins hit out at what she described at the agency’s attempts to “silence me”, and compared the actions of the State’s ‘bad bank’ to the communist regime in North Korea.

Ms Higgins was deeply critical of Nama after it emerged a building on Dublin’s Sir John Rogerson’s Quay was sold by the agency for €7.5m in 2012, only to be resold a year later for almost €18m.

In the Seanad, under privilege, Ms Higgins raised concerns about Nama’s dealings with potential buyers. She accused Nama of “unfairly treating” a potential purchaser who was seeking to buy a property and said that “these practices need to be stamped out”.

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Other government politicians, including Fine Gael TD Michelle Mulherin, have also railed about Nama’s modus operandi.

It has also had to handle the controversial sale of its Northern Ireland loanbook as well as deal with the saga of former employee Enda Farrell’s alleged passing of confidential information to third parties.

It has had to defend its granting of salaries of up to €200,000 a year to developers whose loans were transferred into Nama.

For its part, Nama has repeatedly and robustly defended itself against such criticisms. It has denied it is secretive or lacking in accountability. It has argued that it has been accountable to the Public Accounts Committee and to other Oireachtas committees, more so than any other body.

But without question, its role in Ireland’s property landscape has been controversial, as have its claims as to its profitability.

The University of Limerick’s Concert Hall hosted a general-election debate between the leaders of the seven main parties. There was not one question asked about Nama in any of the main TV debates and it went without mention in most, if not all, press events. Picture: FusionShooter
The University of Limerick’s Concert Hall hosted a general-election debate between the leaders of the seven main parties. There was not one question asked about Nama in any of the main TV debates and it went without mention in most, if not all, press events. Picture: FusionShooter

You see, when Nama was set up, it paid a highly discounted rate of about €32bn for loans that were previously worth €74bn. Now, on its establishment, Nama’s bosses Brendan McDonagh and Frank Daly said they would pursue developers “to the end of the earth” for all of the money they owed.

Along the way, the story changed — and changed dramatically.

All of a sudden, Nama was no longer chasing the full €74bn but rather only the €32bn it paid for it.

Hence we have had bizarre claims from Nama and Finance Minister Michael Noonan that it would make a profit of between €1bn and €2bn.

This is, frankly, horse manure. It is a loss of €41bn to €42bn.

This very topic was the subject of pertinent questioning by Fine Gael’s Michael D’arcy of NUI Galway economics professor Alan Ahearne at the Oireachtas banking inquiry last year. Dr Ahearne was a key player in Nama’s development as Mr Lenihan’s special adviser from March 2009.

Here is how the exchange went:

Senator D’Arcy: “Would it be fair, then, to say, according to the Nama numbers, that there’ll be a loss of €41bn in the entire figure, on the €74bn?”

Prof Ahearne: “The banks would have lost €41bn on the loans that they made during the bubble, yes… on those particular loans.”

Mr D’Arcy: “Yeah. So the conversation about Nama making a €1bn loss… can I ask you your view on that? Is it a €1m — sorry, a €1bn profit, or is it a €41bn loss?”

Prof Ahearne: “The banks have made losses of €40bn off it — on those particular loans.”

Mr D’Arcy: “Which is the fairest? Is it Nama making a €1bn profit or the banks losing €41bn?”

Prof Ahearne: “Well, you can say both of them.”

Mr D’Arcy: “Well, I’m asking you.”

Prof Ahearne: “Because they’ll both be true.”

Mr D’Arcy: “I’m asking you which is yours.”

Prof Ahearne: “I’d say both.”

So, while Nama claims it will make a profit by the time it is supposed to be wound down, in truth, a massive loss of €41bn has been incurred and it is the taxpayer who is losing out.

To put it in context, €41bn is two years’ spend on the entire social welfare system in Ireland, about four times the entire health budget, and seven times the education budget.

The silence over Nama and its operations in this general-election campaign has been a direct result of its size, complexity, and opaqueness.

Such scant mentions of it in the parties’ manifestos is a clear sign that many politicians are either unable to or unwilling to get to grips with the monolith and devise a vision for it.

Peter Bacon, the economist charged by Mr Lenihan to develop the Nama model, has previously gone as far to say the government is “afraid” of Nama and is reluctant to take it on.

Nama deserved far more attention during the election campaign.

Silence in this case is worrying.

For more election news, analysis and general banter join us HERE

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