MICHAEL CLIFFORD: Potential inquiry into Nama’s Project Eagle presents many political footballs but few final results

We may need an inquiry into Nama’s Project Eagle sales in the North, but why is the State run in a manner that necessitates inquiries to get at the truth, asks Michael Clifford.

TO commission an inquiry or to decommission the culture of inquiries? That is the Nama question. In the coming weeks, there is going to have to be a decision on whether to subject Nama to the full monty of inquiries, a commission on investigation.

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) is due to publish a report into its inquiry of the sale of Nama’s Northern Ireland assets, which is mired in controversy. Project Eagle, as it was known, involved a major writedown, a rushed sale, a possible loss of €220m, an Isle of Man bank account stuffed with £7m, and reports that twice that amount was to be paid to middlemen.

All of the money involved is the property of the citizens of this State, and was badly needed at a time of cutbacks and austerity. The question is what should be done about it now.

The sale of Project Eagle has attracted attention in three different jurisdictions. Criminal investigations are being conducted in the USA and by the UK’s National Crime Agency. There has been a parliamentary inquiry in Stormont, and the PAC’s inquiry followed an investigation by the Comptroller and Auditor General, the state’s accountant watchdog.

The C&AG found that there was a potential loss of €220m to the exchequer due to the manner in which the sale was conducted. Nama management has vehemently disputed that finding.

So is the full monty, a judge-led commission of investigation, with extensive powers of discovery and compellability of witnesses, required here? The motive for such an investigation is sound. A huge wad of exchequer money could have been lost in a transaction tainted by corruption.

The problem is that most of the action occurred on the other side of the border. What are the chances that the main players would willingly turn up to be questioned in Dublin, or hand over relevant documents?

All of that is apart from problems that may arise over the confidentiality attached to banking. A commission of investigation into transactions at IBRC is already encountering those problems. Weighing up whether it’s worth the trouble is now the job of Government, once the PAC reports.

Apart from Project Eagle, there are also calls for a wider investigation into how Nama did its business, and whether the citizens were properly served. Nama was set up in the public interest, but stories of deals, particularly for developers who had to be bailed out, abound.

There may well be perfectly reasonable explanations for these deals. However, reports of information being leaked to developers have lent further weight to suspicions that the agency may not have gotten the best value for the citizens’ money.

Allied to this was the Government’s policy around 2012-13 to ensure that the sale of bad loans through Nama be speeded up in order to pay down debt, which in turn reduced the interest rate on the national debt. This change of policy opened up the door to rushed sales which again may not have best served the national interest.

For instance, the decision to sell many assets in bundles narrowed the range of potential buyers. As a result, a number of these bundled projects were snapped up by vulture funds at knockdown prices, which we now know also incurred very little tax liabilities. All of this has led to calls for the full monty into the workings of Nama.

While a commission of investigation is ostensibly set up in the public interest, the decision on whether or not to do so in this case, probably more than most, is subsumed in political considerations.

Last September, on publication of the C&AG report into Project Eagle which detailed the loss of €220m, Taosieach Enda Kenny gave the nod for a commission of investigation.

He met with opposition leaders, after which Fianna Fail leader Micheál Martin said there was a “consensus” that a commission into Project Eagle should be established.

Labour leader Brendan Howlin had a different take.

“I would have serious doubts about the merits of proceeding with any statutory inquiry into allegations of crimes committed in Northern Ireland in the absence of any powers of compulsion over Northern Ireland witnesses,” he said.

Sinn Féin is in favour of a broader commission to look at the workings of Nama across the board.

Last week, Finance Minister Michael Noonan appeared to row back on his leader’s commitment of four months ago. He said that, as of now, there are insufficient grounds on which to hold such an investigation.

Michael McGrath of Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty, finance spokesmen for their parties, both described the position as a row-back on last September’s commitment.

However, Labour’s Joan Burton appeared to side with Mr Noonan.

“The country is coming down with commissions of inquiry into so many issues, that if I was to stand up here and ask people to name them all, and what they are supposed to achieve, I doubt anyone could do that. And now we have another one.”

She may well have a point, but it is also the case that her party would be ensnarled in any political fall-out from a commission of investigation as it was in government with Fine Gael at the time in question.

And that is the key to political positioning on this matter. For the parties which were in government, it amounts to whether any outcome would reflect badly on their stewardship.

For those in opposition, it’s whether political capital can be made from, in the first instance, forcing the Government to establish an inquiry, and secondly from any adverse findings when it reports.

Ideally, the decision on whether the full monty is required to investigate Project Eagle, or even Nama’s wider activities, should come down to the answers to a few pertinent questions.

What lessons can be learned? How long will it take, and, to a lesser extent, how much will it cost? When it reports, will it be possible to take any corrective action, or recoup any possible losses that might be identified? Will anybody ultimately be held accountable for any adverse findings?

Addressing these questions dispassionately in the public interest will be the job of politicians who frequently have difficulty in separating their own immediate interests from that of the wider public. Don’t hold your breath.

The biggest question of all is why the State is run in a manner that requires so many inquiries to be established to get at the truth when things go wrong.

Currently, there are commissions of investigation inquiring into the following matters:

  • The mother and baby homes, chaired by retired judge Yvonne Murphy;
  • Irish Bank Resolution Corporation (formerly Anglo-Irish Bank), chaired by Judge Brian Cregan;
  • Recorded phone system in garda stations, chaired by retired judge Niall Fennelly;
  • Fatal shooting of Ronan MacLochlainn, chaired by Mary Rose Gearty SC.

There are also a number of “scoping” inquiries completed or underway to determine whether a full commission of investigation is warranted including:

  • The inquiry into the ‘Grace’ foster home scandal, highlighted in the Irish Examiner, has recommended a full commission of investigation;
  • The inquiry into allegations of character assassination of garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe is complete and it is expected that a commission of investigation will be initiated as a result;
  • A review of evidence in the Stardust fire tragedy of 1981 has been ordered to determine whether a commission of investigation is required to examine the issue.
  • A statutory inquiry into claims of garda malpractice by former chief of the small business group ISME is currently underway.

More on this topic


Wish List: Eight great Irish buys for your home

Seven beauty tricks to update your look for spring

The lost world: Why breathtaking Malta should be your next holiday stop

Ring leader: Why boxing is good for the body and mind

More From The Irish Examiner