Sunday, July 26, 2015

NAMA scandal

Since this blog last posted on the latest NAMA scandal a number of weeks ago, details are still emerging bit by bit and this scandal is now the focus of a criminal investigation and an Assembly inquiry.  

Readers of this blog will recall that the scandal surrounds the sale by NAMA of loans owned by debtors from across the north of Ireland who had borrowed from Anglo-Irish bank, AIB, Bank of Ireland which had  a par value of £4.5bn.

The sales process of this loan book was called, “Project Eagle”.  

NAMA sold the entire loan portfolio to US vulture capital fund, Cerberus. 

However, what has raised public concern is the allegation that these loans were sold to Cerberus for £1.5bn.

According to NAMA that was their market value at the time of sale. The loss to the taxpayer, was €280m.

One of the questions  of public concern is why did NAMA sell the loans as one lot? Why did they not wait until there was a rise in the northern property market and therefore the value of the assets, in order to get a better return?

The whole purpose of NAMA you will remember is to recoup the losses to the Irish taxpayer who are burdened with the toxic debt of the bank bailout at a cost of €64bn.

This in itself is unfair and unjust.

Sinn Féin is on the record in the Dáil as having raised our deep concerns about the sale of the “Project Eagle” loan book from the beginning.

Our Finance Spokesperson Pearse Doherty TD, questioned the Minister for Finance Michael Noonan, on whether or not NAMA had  received the best value for the portfolio.

Pearse stated, "Fire sales at the cusp of property price and economic recovery ring every alarm bell there is.” 
He asked the Minister about, “…the number of bidders; the date the bidding process commenced; if he instructed NAMA to dispose of their entire North of Ireland portfolio; the criteria used to establish the successful bidder; and if he will disclose the ultimate price paid for the portfolio.”

At the start of this month Independent TD Mick Wallace pulled no punches when he too raised similar and valid concerns in the Dáil.  He directed those at the Labour party leader and Tánaiste, Joan Burton. What he had to say has rightly give rise to much media commentary since. 
The Dáil Public Accounts Committee (PAC) then held a  hearing.  That took place on 9th July. 
The PAC called  NAMA Chairman Frank Daly and it’s CEO Brendan McDonagh to answer questions about these issues and to probe a series of related events of deepening public concern.
Frank Daly told the PAC committee that they first became aware of investor interest in the purchase of the North’s loan portfolio when Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan gave them a letter he had received from then DUP Minister for Finance, Sammy Wilson on 24 June 2013. 

In that letter Sammy Wilson stated, that he had already had discussions with some of those interested in purchasing the loans and that a law firm, Brown Rudnick, had been instrumental in introducing him to these potential investors.  
  Brown Rudnick wrote to Sammy Wilson with their proposal and he  passed it onto the Finance Minister, Michael Noonan in Dublin for consideration – and, on the exact same day that he received it, 24 June 2013. 

Normally takes at least 10 working days for correspondence to be considered and processed by Officials in any Department, before an advised response is forthcoming by Ministers.

Anyway, Brown Rudnick stated in that correspondence to Sammy Wilson that, “Two of our clients have each confirmed that they would, independently, be committed to a process of a potential outright purchase of the NAMA Northern Irish Borrowers Connections Loan Book…”

The letter went onto detail a series of conditions expected from their clients.  It also stated that, “The integrity of the transaction is our main concern.  Proceeding with one party on a limited exclusivity, will ensure a focused, expedient process with guaranteed confidentiality, which we would see as absolutely vital for such a process."

It was a full month later, on 25 July 2013 when Michael Noonan replied to Sammy Wilson.  

In his response Minister Noonan pointed out that parties interested in acquiring NAMA loans or assets should make direct contact with NAMA themselves.  He also said that NAMA's policy was that loan and asset sales should be openly marketed and they did not favour granting exclusive access to any potential purchaser as that would militate against achieving optimal value for the assets concerned.

A prudent response from Minister Noonan, right?

NAMA informed the PAC that in September 2013, Brown Rudnick law firm made an unsolicited approach to them to say that their client PIMCO was interested in acquiring NAMA's northern loan portfolio, but that they wanted a closed sale, rather than an open one. 

This is against NAMA policy.  So, NAMA engaged with PIMCO they say to try persuading them of an open market approach to the sale. 

In early December 2013, PIMCO did then make a bid, but still wanted a closed sale.  

A week later, the NAMA board met and decided that the loans would be openly marketed through competitive bidding and a minimum price reserve was agreed which they claim reflected the market value of the assets.  

A company called Lazard were appointed by NAMA on 8th January 2014 to oversee the sales process of the loans.

However, NAMA  then received what they described to the PAC as a “letter of intent” or Memorandum of Understanding.  This they said was sent from Peter Robinson through his private office in the Office of First and Deputy First Minister on 17 January 2014.

This letter related to the proposed management of the northern loan portfolio and according to NAMA, appeared to outline an agreement between PIMCO and the Executive in the North.

This was news to Martin McGuinness. As Deputy First Minister it did not have his  approval, consent or knowledge.

We now know that on 10 March 2014, PIMCO disclosed to NAMA that they had discovered that their proposed fee arrangement with Brown Rudnick law firm also included the payment of fees to Tughans solicitors, and to a former member of NAMA’s northern advisory committee, Frank Cushnahan who had resigned from that committee on 8 November 2013.

NAMA have stated that their board met the following day to consider the most appropriate course of action. 
PIMCO were then told to withdraw from the bidding process by NAMA due to their concerns about the proposed fee arrangement which PIMCO had disclosed to them.  

We now know from NAMA that this fee was £15m.

Under questioning from Sinn Féin TD Mary Lou McDonald at the PAC committee, NAMA Chairman Frank Daly confirmed that he had alerted Minister Michael Noonan of this serious development on 13 March, including the £15m fee arrangement and how it was to be divided up.

Mary Lou asked the NAMA chairman did the Minister at any stage have a conversation with him about suspending the entire sales process, given this irregularity.  

Frank Daly confirmed Minister Noonan had not.

This is not only astounding, but also ill-judged on the Minister’s part.

Surely, it was crystal clear that this entire sales process was now flawed and compromised.

It is alarming that Minister Michael Noonan and NAMA did not act to alert the Executive and relevant authorities in the North of this development and their concerns about such an important matter.

This failure is unacceptable and requires explanation from Minister Noonan.

Martin McGuinness has written to both Minister Noonan and An Taoiseach Enda Kenny to express his concerns after only becoming aware of these matters through the PAC hearing this month. 

We now know that Lazard had interest from nine bidders but that it was the US vulture capital fund, Cerberus who landed the deal. 
This sale was completed on 20 June 2014.

NAMA stated that given their concerns around the £15m fee arrangement disclosed by PIMCO, that they sought a declaration from Cerberus that nobody connected with NAMA, including any former member of an advisory committee, would be paid any fee, commission or other remuneration or payment in the Project Eagle sales process.

It has since been discovered that Cerberus did contract Brown Rudnick, who in turn used Tughans and that firms managing partner departed company after a dispute over £7m being diverted to an Isle of Man bank account. 

That issue is being investigated by the Law Society.

The final commercial deal between NAMA and Cerberus is not yet clear. Ditto whether there were “fixers” fees paid and if so, to whom exactly?

That issue is being investigated by the British National Crime Agency.

For Sinn Féin the core issues are whether the taxpayer got best value for money from the sale of Project Eagle in the South?

Why NAMA and the Minister for Finance Michael Noonan failed to abandon the sales process when PIMCO made such a serious disclosure about fixers and fee arrangements, and why they then failed to inform the Executive of these serious concerns?

All of this warrants independent examination in our view. This requires the establishment of a Commission of Investigation by the Irish Government.  
 To date the Minister for Finance has failed to even come before the Dáil and make a full statement on the matter.
However, Sinn Féin will table a Dáil private members motion at the first opportunity on all these issues.  
We are therefore putting the Government and Minister Noonan on notice.

In the North there also remain outstanding questions including public concern that there may have been unethical political influence as part of this broader NAMA scandal, as reported widely in the media.

All of these issues must be fully examined in an open and robust way, otherwise our political institutions risk being brought into disrepute. 

The Assembly Finance and Personnel Committee have agreed terms of reference and began their first, in a series of hearings at Stormont yesterday.  The Committee have now agreed to invite former DUP Finance Ministers Sammy Wilson and Simon Hamilton to appear before them.  

They should obviously appear without delay.

The role of Cerberus  cannot be ignored either. 

They must refrain from adding to any negative, downward impact on small businesses, employers and the wider economy through a “fire-sale” of assets.

There is rightly a high public expectation that those responsible for inspecting and considering these critical issues - whether  law enforcement agencies or Assembly scrutiny committees - will do so in a fair and robust way that ensures the public interest is put first.


We can be sure that this is the beginning rather than the end of this saga. There is no doubt that more will come to light y from both Dublin and Belfast - and perhaps further - in the time ahead.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Press Council uphold complaint against Irish Independent

 It only seems like yesterday when BBC newsrooms would have to scramble to find an actor to pretend to be me when they wanted to carry an interview. I always felt like I was making some small contribution to the Arts by keeping some actors in occasional employment. Some of them also clearly improved my diction. 

The broadcasting ban, which barred my voice from being heard on the British media, was one of the more bizarre responses of the British state to the conflict.

Of course political censorship by the Irish and British governments went much further than that. It pervaded all aspects of media broadcasting. It went much further than coverage of the war and of the political endeavours to bring it to an end. Sometimes the law was perverted as in the Broadcast Ban introduced by Margaret Thatcher or in Section 31 used by the Irish government, but just as often it was the sly use of political influence or the natural conservative bias of sections of the media, both in Ireland and Britain.

 
The Brits had very formal structures and believed – and still do as is evident from Iraq and Afghanistan – in the use of psyops (psychological operations) propaganda. But the all-pervasive Section 31 simply banned any member of Sinn Féin speaking on any issue whatsoever.

At its core political censorship is about the state managing how citizens get the news. It misinforms citizens.  At its most brazen it is about the demonising of political opponents – trying to persuade citizens through the omission or distortion of information – that those who are being censored are dangerous, subversive, criminal, fanatical, sectarian and so on. You get the idea I’m sure.

But it isn’t just the state that uses censorship or which distorts the opinions of those it doesn’t like. The ownership of the media by a relatively small number of individuals or companies means that these too exercise a huge influence over public opinion. The recent election in Britain is a case in point where the largely conservative owned newspapers lashed the British Labour Party at every opportunity while giving the Tory party largely positive coverage.

We have our equivalent of that in the south of Ireland. The Independent group of newspapers at times fixate on Sinn Féin and especially on me. On one occasion late last year the Sunday Independent had 90 named references to me in 13 separate negative articles.

And then it reached absurd levels when the Independent Group tried to claim that a reference I made in a speech in New York last November, to the response of Michael Collins to the Independent’s attack on the IRA of his day - was an implied threat by me of journalists. By any standard this was a daft and irresponsible assertion but it was one they made anyway. 

In my speech I had pointed out that Michael Collins's response to the Irish Independent’s “criticism of the fight for freedom was to dispatch volunteers to the Independent’s offices. They held the editor at gunpoint and then dismantled and destroyed the entire printing machinery!  Now I’m obviously not advocating that.”

Regrettably others picked up on the Independent’s line, including the NUJ who working on the same presumption that my remarks constituted a threat to journalists, criticised my comments. Seamus Dooley the Irish secretary of the NUJ said that he “found my comment ill-judged and inappropriate in the context of the daily threats of violence against journalists” and apparently a “number of members, including those employed at Independent Newspapers, found the Collins reference sinister and intimidating.”


In my reply to him I rejected his view that my comments were in any way ill-judged or inappropriate. I suggested that anyone who takes the trouble to read my script will understand the absurdity of the Independent News & Media Group's campaign. And I invited him to read it in full. The speech can be found my logging into http://www.sinnfein.ie/contents/32141 and to get the full picture read the blog The Good old IRA at http://leargas.blogspot.ie/2014/11/the-good-old-ira.html#sthash.HZFAnEcj



The idea that any journalist at the Independent, who bothered to read what I had actually said, would interpret it as “sinister” is difficult to accept. The fact is I was simply referencing a historical fact. I did so in my speech to highlight the hypocrisy of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil leaders who hail IRA leader Michael Collins as a Gandhi-like figure while condemning modern republicans such as Bobby Sands, Mairéad Farrell, or Máire Drumm as 'terrorists'.

Several months later in a further report on 9th March on the New York speech the Irish Independent claimed that I had “openly joked about holding the editor of the Irish Independent at gunpoint”.

I complained to the Press Ombudsman that my remarks were reported out of context and that I had clearly referred to the actions of Tan War hero Michael Collins. The Press Ombudsman upheld my complaint. The Irish Independent appealed the decision to the Press Council and this was heard on 3 July. The Press Council rejected the appeal and affirmed the Press Ombudsman's decision in my favour. It said that it was “upholding this complaint on the grounds that the report breached Principle 1 of the Code.  The relevant section of this Principle is 1.1. This states: 


In reporting news and information, newspapers and magazines shall strive at all times for truth and accuracy.”

This latest development follows a series of decisions by the media watchdog to uphold complaints by me about articles in the Irish Independent and Sunday Independent. The constant stream of biased and offensive coverage of Sinn Féin by the Irish Independent, and of myself in particular, is unprecedented in the history of Irish newspapers. The decision of the Press Council to uphold the Press Ombudsman's findings is another significant and positive development. But I have no illusions that the Independent Group will continue with its campaign and that these will probably increase the closer we get to a Dáil general election.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The tragedy and courage of Ballymurphy

Today - Wednesday - the Dáil debate an all-party motion in support of the Ballymurphy Massacre Relatives. Their story is one of great tragedy, courage and tenacity. Its also a story of my home place - where I grew up and the people I knew. Below are my remarks from today.

Support the Ballymurphy Families!

Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis an Taoiseach as díospóireacht uile-pháirtí an lae. Seo céim thábhachtach chun tosaigh do theaghlaigh Bhaile Uí Mhurchú agus iad sa tóir ar an fhírinne agus cóir.

Today's motion is an important step forward in the search for truth and justice for the Ballymurphy families. Ballymurphy is a large housing estate at the foot of Black Mountain in west Belfast. Like other housing estates throughout these islands, it was badly built in the 1950s - jerry-built houses in an area which lacked many of the basic facilities for education, recreation, jobs, and for young people. My mother was allocated a home there in the late 1950s, so the people who are gathered in the Visitors Gallery today are my neighbours or the children or grandchildren of my neighbours and friends. They are the relatives of the 11 citizens killed in Ballymurphy in August 1971. Tá fáilte mhór rompu uilig.

I also want to welcome the British ambassador, Dominick Chilcott, here today. I trust he will convey the feeling of this Oireachtas to his Government and ask why, decades into a peace process, the Government in London does not accept the right of these victims of British state terrorism to have their truth acknowledged.

I also welcome the relatives of some of the victims of the McGurk's pub bombings, who have accompanied the Ballymurphy relatives today. Tá gaolta na ndaoine seo ag lorg na fírinne. They are the victims of a war which commenced in the north-eastern part of the island in the late 1960s. War was the British state’s response to the civil rights struggle. The Irish Government of the day stood idly by as ordinary people found themselves caught up in a carnival of reaction against very modest demands for civil rights.

On 9 August 1971, internment was introduced. By that time British troops had been on the streets for two years. They enforced their will through curfew, rubber bullets, gas, water cannon and lead bullets. On the back of the initial internment swoops, the Parachute Regiment was deployed in Ballymurphy. They, like the royal marine commandos, were the shock troops of the British military, deployed against communities which were deemed to be particularly rebellious. When I was growing up in Ballymurphy it was not particularly rebellious at all, but the events of 1969, 1970 and 1971 politicised and republicanised an entire community. Ballymurphy never went to war. The war came to us.

The bombing at McGurk’s pub in north Belfast was another horrific example of that war. It took place in December 1971, four months after the events in Ballymurphy. In both instances, as in many others involving British state forces, the establishment sought to cover up and to deny any responsibility for the deaths. The McGurk's families have initiated legal proceedings against the PSNI, the British Ministry of Defence and the Norther Ireland Office, NIO.

An investigation by the Police Ombudsman for the North found the RUC had exhibited an investigative bias by blaming the loyalist attack on republicans. New evidence uncovered by researchers for the families at the British National Archives in London reveals links between the McGurk's bar bombing and other similar incidents, including the Kelly's bar attack on 13 May 1972 in Ballymurphy. These links provide evidence of collusion between British state agencies and Unionist death squads. We have also seen this in the recent RTE and BBC television programmes which looked at collusion, and which reinforce the view that the issue of collusion warrants a stand-alone debate in this Dáil. We have put this case to the Taoiseach and I ask once again that a debate be scheduled in the autumn.

Ach inniu táimid ag díriú isteach ar an slad a tharla i mBaile Uí Mhurchú. For the Ballymurphy families with us today, their story begins in the early hours of Monday, 9 August 1971. Thousands of British soldiers, supported by the RUC, smashed their way into hundreds of Nationalist homes.

I was in Ballymurphy that night. I watched my own home being smashed into. I watched other male members of my family being dragged off. I watched my mother and my younger brothers and sisters fleeing. The house was occupied for days by the Parachute Regiment. They destroyed everything. They shit on beds, they urinated in wardrobes, they broke up family and religious memorabilia They dragged away over 300 men and boys into the night, many of them to be tortured later. In the following hours in the Murph, they shot dead ten citizens: nine men, including a local priest, and a mother of eight children. Contrary to what the Tánaiste implies, there was gunfire only from one side when these citizens were killed. That gunfire came from the Parachute Regiment.

The innocent victims were Fr. Hugh Mullan, Francis Quinn, Daniel Teggart, Joan Connolly – a mother of eight - Joseph Murphy, Noel Phillips, Edward Doherty, John Laverty, Joseph Corr and John McKerr. An 11th man, local community worker Paddy McCarthy, died from a heart attack after a British army patrol subjected him to a mock execution. Eleven families lost loved ones and 57 children were bereaved.

As a consequence of internment, many Belfast citizens fled their homes seeking safety in refugee camps in this State. Among them were some of the Ballymurphy families and their children. Some of those in the Visitors Gallery today watched the funerals of their parents on news footage broadcast by RTE. Others were too young to comprehend the enormity of what happened.

Five months later the same paras were on the streets of Derry and shot dead 14 people. The main difference between what happened on Bloody Sunday in Derry and what happened in Ballymurphy was that a part of the assault in Derry was televised. It immediately became a huge issue of controversy while, in Ballymurphy, only the people there knew what had happened. Of course, the British, the regiments, the commanders and the British Ministry of Defence knew.

Six months after Bloody Sunday, the paras returned to west Belfast and carried out another attack in Springhill, the housing estate adjacent to Ballymurphy, where they shot dead another five people, including three children and another Catholic priest. Two Catholic priests were killed in the one community. Margaret Gargan was aged 13, John Dougal was 16, Davy McCafferty was 15, Patrick Butler was aged 40 and the second Catholic priest, Fr. Noel Fitzpatrick, was aged 40.

For 44 years the Ballymurphy families, like many others, have demonstrated extraordinary courage and determination in the face of British secrecy and obstruction. Le fada an lá ní bhfuair scéal Bhaile Uí Mhurchú cluas éisteachta. It was the forgotten massacre. Ach d’fhág sé brón a bhí chomh fíor agus chomh trua le haon slad eile.

For four decades the families have campaigned with great dignity and with grace. I have accompanied them to meet successive British Secretaries of State and shadow Secretaries of State. Truth to tell, I have lost count of the number we met. None of them did anything of any consequence, although some of them were moved to tears by what they were told. We have also briefed successive taoisigh and Ministers for Foreign Affairs, and today the families briefed the Oireachtas. Are we also going to let them down? It is obvious that the memories from that cruel period in our history are still fresh and the pain and grief is as strong as it was 40 years ago, but the families have also refused to be broken. They have refused to hate. They go forward with positivity. They have compiled significant evidence which shows that all who died were killed unlawfully and in breach of Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, ECHR. The case also raises serious questions regarding human rights abuses committed by the British Army and exposes a culture of impunity in which members of the British forces routinely acted outside the law and were protected while so doing.

In November 2010 the families made an application to the Attorney General to re-open the inquests. A year later he agreed. That was a welcome development but the families and I remain concerned about the limitations of the inquest system. Consequently, they have proposed the appointment of an independent panel to examine all documents relating to the context, circumstances and aftermath of the deaths of their loved ones. The British Secretary of State has rejected this proposal. She is one in a long line. For that reason the families are looking to the Government and to Oireachtas Members to demand that the British Government stop blocking and hiding and agree to an independent review. This all-party motion is an important step on the road to achieving that, but let no one think that voting for this is enough. It is not enough to say that we support the families or other victims. As the Dáil knows only too well from its experience with successive British Governments in respect of the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, for example, motions on their own will not make a difference.

The Government has not done it yet, but it needs to put in place a strategic approach which ensures the British Government is challenged on this issue at every meeting and in every international forum. Unless we do that, the British Government will continue to refuse to give the people of Ballymurphy, and in particular the families and other families what they deserve. If our Government does not do it, how on earth can we expect anyone else to do it? If we are not making this the main issue of this time on the back of the all-party Oireachtas motion we cannot expect anyone else to do it. The matter must be on every agenda between Irish and British officials. The full resources of the State must be employed to challenge the actions that took place. It would be good for the people of Britain for the lid to be lifted on this phase of our joint history. It is not enough to raise the issue, tick the box and talk quietly on the side. It is only when one has a build-up, using diplomatic and other influences, that one will get the British Government to respond as it did on Bloody Sunday. Of course Mr. Cameron deserves commendation for his apology at that time, but we should remember that it too took decades to get.

We should not forget the pain, suffering and tragedies from decades of conflict because for many they are as real today as they were when they first occurred. Almost 4,000 people died and countless others were injured in a war that was vicious and brutal. Fuair tuairim is ceithre mhíle duine bás le linn cogadh a bhí géar uafásach. Over the years I have met many victims, including victims of the IRA. I am prepared to do that, as are other leaders of Sinn Féin. The grief of all victims of the conflict must be respected and acknowledged and all of us in political leadership have a responsibility to do all that we can to ensure no future generation suffers the pain of war. We who have survived have a duty to set them free. For many however, the past remains a reality of the present. Even though it was over 40 years ago, it is as if it was yesterday. I found myself getting emotional when making my opening remarks here today, even though it is almost half a century ago. The past is the present for so many people, and it remains an obstacle to dealing with the future or a pretext or excuse for refusing to build a new future of equality, fairness and prosperity for everyone.

For that reason Sinn Féin endorsed the measures in the Stormont House Agreement for addressing legacy matters. Notwithstanding the difficulties that exist, there is an onus on the Irish and British Governments to implement those elements of the Stormont House Agreement that deal with the past and legacy issues. There is no need to wait for the local political parties - none at all. Issues of security and for the forces involved are the responsibility of the two Governments. They are not the responsibility of Sinn Féin, the DUP, the UUP, the SDLP or the Alliance Party. The Governments can put together the process for dealing with the past and Sinn Féin will co-operate with it. The peace process needs continuous nourishment. It needs to be at the top of the Government’s agenda. Notwithstanding any of the other political priorities, that is where we need to put it. Unfortunately, that is not the case currently, although the Oireachtas all-party motion is very welcome and is a good step in the right direction. I commend the motion to the Dáil.

 

Friday, July 3, 2015

NAMA at centre of new scandal


NAMA is once again in the news. This time over the sale of its northern loan portfolio. Regular readers of this blog will know that the Fianna Fáil Government established the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA) in 2009 as part of its response to the economic crisis. Acting as a ‘bad bank’ NAMA took over all of the loans – “good” and “bad” – of all property borrowers arising from those banks bailed out by the Irish taxpayer.

As a consequence of the decisions of successive Irish government’s bad banking debt was then turned into public debt with citizens taking on the financial burden of debts amounting to over €64 billion. NAMA was intended to recoup the losses to the Irish taxpayer.

Sinn Féin TDs, particularly my good self, Mary Lou MacDonald, Pearse Doherty and Peadar Toibin have consistently raised concerns about NAMA. At the beginning of June the Irish government was forced into establishing a Commission of Investigation into the Irish Bank Resolution Corporation (IBRC) over concerns about the write down of debt in the selling off of public assets held by that bank.

In the Dáil debate I said: It’s also important to state that the concerns around IBRC are not confined to that bank. Similar concerns surround the operation of the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA).

NAMA also has been handling billions of euro in debts arising from the economic crash, mainly from the collapse of the construction industry. NAMA has been ordered to wind up faster than its 2020 remit demands.

Sinn Féin is concerned that this may result in a failure to get full value for the taxpayer and that NAMA is undertaking a firesale of assets to meet an arbitrary deadline. So, the distinct impression that citizens are left with after weeks of exposure to the IBRC scandal is that a culture of secrecy exists at the heart of this Government.”

On Thursday independent TD Mick Wallace raised similar and valid concerns around NAMA and the sale of its northern loan portfolio to a US vulture capitalist firm called Cerberus Capital Management back in April 2014.

This sale by NAMA included loans owned by debtors – property developers and investors - from the North who had borrowed from Anglo-Irish bank, AIB and Bank of Ireland.  Their loans were secured by assets held across the island of Ireland, Britain and in parts of Europe. 

The value of these loans had a par value of £4.5 billion and the whole purpose of NAMA selling this loan portfolio was to recoup the losses to the Irish taxpayer who shamefully, have been forced to bail out the banks who lent the money in the first place. But of course that is not what happened.

What we now know did happen was that NAMA sold the £4.5 billion of loans to Cerberus - it is alleged for only £1.5 billion. 

Before the sale even took place Sinn Féin Finance Spokesperson Pearse Doherty questioned the Minister for Finance Michael Noonan in the Dáil on whether or not NAMA had jumped too soon and received the best value for the portfolio on behalf of the taxpayer.

Pearse asked, "Fire sales at the cusp of property price and economic recovery ring every alarm bell there is.”

Asking further he quizzed the Minister on,  “…the number of bidders; the date the bidding process commenced; if he instructed NAMA to dispose of their entire North of Ireland portfolio; the criteria used to establish the successful bidder; and if he will disclose the ultimate price paid for the portfolio.”

In response Michael Noonan said that, “the sale of the loans relating to debtors in the North was conducted on NAMAs behalf by the corporate finance advisor Lazard. The sales process commenced in January 2014 and the decision to dispose of the portfolio was taken by NAMA in response to an improvement in market conditions. As part of the process, Lazard identified and engaged with those parties which, in its expert view, had the capacity to engage in a transaction of this scale. NAMA recently announced its intention to proceed with the sale of the portfolio, subject to contract, to affiliates of Cerberus Capital Management, L.P. The process is, accordingly, on-going and it would be inappropriate to comment any further on the matter given that the transaction has not yet concluded.”

Needless to say the sale went ahead.  Cerberus got a bargain and the people got taken for fools by the Government and the golden-circle, yet again.

On the day the sale went through NAMA Chairman, Frank Daly, and NAMA CEO, Brendan McDonagh issued a public statement which said;

“This transaction represents a significant achievement for NAMA.   It is NAMA’s biggest single transaction to date and we are satisfied that the sales process will deliver the best possible result for the Irish taxpayer. NAMA management of this portfolio has been measured and supportive taking into consideration the particular circumstances in the Northern Ireland economy. We are assured by Cerberus that they will adopt a similar approach.”

I’m not sure everyone would agree with that assessment.

One year on we are being told of serious concerns being experienced by local businesses and entrepreneurs in the north, many of whom were in fact “good” borrowers, who agreed their repayments with NAMA before it sold off the northern portfolio, and who have yet to miss a repayment.

Sinn Féin warned of this at the time and Cerberus promised to work with local business and gave assurances, “to act in the best interests of Northern Ireland and, like Nama, would not seek quick fixes by embarking on a “fire sale” that would drive down property prices.”

However, despite such promises Cerberus certainly do appear to be seeking quick fixes and embarking on a “fire sale” to secure the par value of the loans of £4.5 billion.  This is to the detriment of the local economy, particularly in these increasingly challenging times as the Tory party inflict deep cuts to the local economy.  We must avoid at all costs any further assault or negative downward impact on small business, employers and the wider economy.

Cerberus cannot come to Ireland as profiteers and not be scrutinised or held to account.  We can assure them that is what will happen.

Further allegations raised by Deputy Mick Wallace TD in the Dáil which suggest a cabal involved in insider trading and political cronyism, must be fully investigated by the Assembly, PSNI, DPP and other relevant authorities. 

I welcome the statement from the Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, who has called for an intensive investigation into these matters. 

I also welcome the decision by Daithi McKay, the Sinn Féin Chair of the Assembly Finance Committee, who has said that he intends to convene an emergency sitting of the committee to consider its response to the NAMA allegations. Cerberus was previously invited by the Assembly Committee to give evidence but didn’t. Daithi intends calling them again. He also plans to call NAMA officials and the Law Firm mentioned in the current controversy to speak to the committee, and I understand that he intends inviting Mick Wallace to appear before the committee also.

The disclosures around this latest controversy involving NAMA underlines the need for a Commission of Investigation to be established into the management and decisions of NAMA by the Irish government.

As a first step, and in light of the revelations and allegations over the last 24 hours it is imperative that the Minister of Finance Michael Noonan comes into the Dáil on Tuesday and makes a full statement on the handling of this sale by NAMA and states whether he is assured that the sale was value for money and not open to abuse.

 

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The gravest crisis - institutions of Good Friday Agreement hangs by a thread


The future of the political structures created by the Good Friday Agreement hangs by a thread. In the 17 years since it was achieved the Agreement has faced many challenges but the determination of the British Tory government, and of the unionist parties, to implement swingeing austerity cuts represents the gravest threat yet to the political institutions.

Last week the Sinn Féin Ard Chomhairle agreed to give conditional support to the Budget nos 2 Bill that Arlene Foster has introduced into the Assembly. It is a technical piece of legislation that gives effect to the budget which Sinn Féin and the other parties agreed during the Stormont House negotiations at Christmas time. Sinn Féin’s support for the Stormont House Agreement was based on full protection for all successful claims for social security benefits under the control of the Executive for the next six years.

In February the DUP defaulted on this part of the agreement and provided only for current recipients.

The Budget nos 2 bill has been described by some as a ‘fantasy’ budget. But failure last week to pass the budget bill would likely have resulted in an immediate crisis in the political institutions. The Sinn Féin decision provided a space in which solutions might still be found. However the ability of the parties to do this has been severely undermined by four years of consistent Tory cuts that have targeted public services and the most vulnerable in society. In total one and a half billion pounds has been slashed form the Executive’s budget in addition to cuts to welfare spending at Westminster.

This austerity agenda has caused real hardship for many families and impacted badly on the provision of public services.

Throughout this time Sinn Féin’s priorities have been to ensure the efficient functioning of the power sharing institutions; create jobs and reduce unemployment; protect the most vulnerable in society, and to bring forward working budgets that ensure the delivery of frontline services.

Sinn Féin deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, has also played a central role in the Executive’s successful job creation strategy that has seen unemployment falling. We sought to strengthen these objectives through the negotiations at Stormont House, by working to create a coalition against Tory cuts within the Executive and wider society, and by setting out an alternative to austerity.

Part of this was agreeing to the budget for 2015/2016. We agreed this budget in good faith in the context of it being a finalised budget with no further cuts, and in anticipation of the delivery of all aspects of the Stormont House Agreement.

There has been limited progress on the Stormont House Agreement. The DUP is still refusing to honour the agreement on social security protection safeguards and the newly elected British government intends to impose further cuts of £25 billion to public spending. A cut of £38 million from the 2015/2016 budget in the six-counties has already been determined.

London has so far failed to detail the wider impact of these cuts in the north but the Secretary of State Theresa Villiers has told DFM Martin McGuinness that ‘they will be eye watering.’

Sinn Féin’s position has been consistent and clear.  We are totally opposed to the Tory cuts agenda.  We are opposed to it in principle and in practice.  Tory cuts and austerity are incompatible with democratic values.  Sinn Féin cannot and will not be agents of cuts imposed on citizens in the north at the behest of millionaires in London.

 Others who may be prepared to perform this role should be mindful that these cuts will affect unionist and loyalist citizens as well as everyone else.

To date the most vulnerable have been cushioned from the worst of  the Tory cuts to the block grant, however there are also cuts in spending by government departments that have been announced but have yet been given full effect by the voluntary and statutory agencies and bodies that have seen their funding reduced.

Republicans want the political institutions to work and deliver for citizens. Despite the inevitable problems associated with a unique and experimental power sharing system there can be no doubt that the Executive and Assembly and all-Ireland institutions have worked much better for citizens than the years of direct rule by unaccountable British Ministers and the  decades of one party control by the Ulster Unionist Party.

Consequently our preference is for the current institutions to stay in place. But it cannot be at any price.

Sinn Féin does not expect conservative governments in Dublin or London to change their political or ideological positions. They are both wedded to the austerity agenda.

However, we do expect both governments to accept the special circumstances of the north, as a society coming out of conflict, and the need for an economic dividend to the necessary process of peace building and change.  We also demand that they fully implement the Good Friday Agreement and subsequent agreements.

Specifically, the two governments should implement those elements of the Stormont House Agreement that deal with the past and legacy issues. Victims and their families should not be prevented from achieving truth and closure because of the failure to reach agreement on other issues. The two governments can and should proceed with establishing the Historical Investigations Unit (HIU); improving Legacy inquests and establish the Independent Commission on Information Retrieval (ICIR).

In the meantime Sinn Féin Ministers will continue to maintain frontline services as far as possible. And strive to protect vulnerable citizens.

At this eleventh hour I would urge civic society, the business, voluntary and community sector, the churches and trade union movement to play a full and positive role in defending citizens against austerity and in defending public services and democratic political institutions. The British Tories need to be persuaded to agree a realistic funding for the Executive which delivers for citizens. Without a working budget this is not tenable.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Lá breithe shona duit Fr. Des


Where to begin? Fr. Des will be 90 on July 8th. It’s hard to believe. He has lived a full life. A good life. And in the course of his years of service Fr. Des  has helped thousands of people. During the dark years of war and violence he lived and worked in Ballymurphy and Springhill and was often in the thick of it standing up for citizens against the British Army and RUC, comforting the bereaved, and helping frightened people.

It feels like I have known him all my life. He has been a crucial part of the greater Ballymurphy family from the time he was first moved to St. John’s parish in 1966. Ballymurphy was one of those post second world war estates that was built without thought or planning. No schools, no shops, no play facilities for children, no local employment and no church. Corpus Christie was built to serve the Ballymurphy and Springhill communities but someone neglected to build a priests house.

Fr. Des and Fr. Hugh Mullan came up with the radical idea of getting a council house within the Ballymurphy estate. Most priests lived separately from the working class communities who made up the bulk of their parishioners. Theirs was a novel proposal. Unsurprisingly the idea was not well received and Fr. Mullan found himself in Springfield Park – a small estate of semi-detached houses, just across the Springfield Road from Ballymurphy.

On August 9th 1971 Fr. Mullan was one of 11 local citizens who died in the Ballymurphy Massacre – victims of the British Army’s Parachute Regiment. Fr. Mullan had gone to the aid of neighbour Bobby Clarke who had been shot in the back. Fr. Mullan was waving a white babygrow when he too was shot in the back. Eye witnesses said Father Mullan could be heard praying as he lay bleeding to death.

Fr. Des eventually secured a small four bedroomed terrace council house – 123 Springhill Avenue – and took up residency in January 1972. From that point on it was an ‘open house’ – Springhill Community House - a place of refuge and learning and spirituality. Fr. Des made everyone welcome. His home was also one of the few places in that huge sprawling area with a working phone. Consequently each day harassed parents, mainly mothers, were there trying to get news of those arrested in British Army swoops; or to phone the local dole office about the non-arrival of social benefits.

Father Des teamed up with Frank Cahill and other local activists. They founded the Rock furniture group and other co-ops, started a Peoples’ Theatre and developed outreach with working class unionist communities.

The Church hierarchy looked increasingly with disapproval on the work of Fr. Des. More and more he found himself at odds with the political stance of the hierarchy. In 1975 he resigned from the Church but not from the priesthood and continued with his work.

During this time I approached Fr. Des and Fr Alec Reid to see if they were prepared to act as facilitators to help bring an end to the occasional inter republican conflicts that broke out in Belfast. They agreed and helped put in place a process of arbitration and mediation that undoubtedly saved lives. They also started a dialogue with loyalist paramilitaries and both priests were very supportive of the republican prisoners, especially during the hunger strikes. Springhill Community House was also very active in the campaign to end the strip searching of the women prisoners in Armagh Women’s prison.

Along with Noelle Ryan and others Fr. Des successfully turned Springhill Community House, into the largest academic outreach centre in west Belfast. It provided a meeting place for people to discuss and study whatever was of interest to them.  Its objective was to promote social inclusion and self-help and to assist the most disadvantaged and prepare them for further education and training. By 1980, there were over 200 enrolments. Many of them were young people expelled from school or adults who had left school early to find work.

In 1982 Springhill Community House extended its programmes into Conway Mill with the opening of the Education floor. The old Mill, which had been lying derelict for years, was part of an innovative self-help project founded by the late Tom Cahill. Tom proposed that Conway Mill should be turned into a community enterprise project providing education, self-help and local employment opportunities.

The first management committee included many well-known local republican and community activists, including Frank Cahill, Liam Burke, Alfie Hannaway, Jimmy Drumm, Jean McStravick, Sean O’ Neill, Tom Cahill, Colm Bradley and Fr. Des Wilson

 
To facilitate the provision of education one floor of one of the two main buildings was given over to education. It was run under the auspices of Springhill Community House and for much of the time with the indefatigable Else Best present. The floor was cleared, classrooms constructed, toilets installed and a theatre and stage built. Halla na Saoirse (Freedom Hall) was frequently used for the staging of plays written by local people.

 

A crèche was established and staffed by ACE (Action for Community Employment) workers and teachers and tutors were provided by the Workers Educational Association (W.E.A.) and the Ulster Peoples College.

 
Regrettably Conway Mill also became a target for the British state. Under the then British Secretary of State Douglas Hurd a policy of political vetting against community groups with any alleged republican connection was introduced. The first to be targeted was the Conway Mill crèche. The British decision, which was supported by the SDLP, caused outrage.

 
There were also threats and attacks by unionist paramilitaries. However Dr. Des and his colleagues refused to be coerced or intimidated and continued to fundraise and to develop the Mill. Today it is a fine building providing employment and education for the people of west Belfast and it is a fitting tribute to the courage and vision of Fr. Des and his friends.

 
Through the 70s, the 80s, the 90s and into the 21st century Springhill Community House, and Fr. Des have been at the heart of many of the positive initiatives to emerge from west Belfast. As well as creating jobs and providing education Springhill Community House was deeply involved in justice, policing and human rights projects. They organised some of the first surveys and inquiries into living conditions, education provision and unemployment in West Belfast.

 
With his friend Fr. Joe McVeigh, Fr. Des also established the Community for Social Justice. Its role was to highlight the real nature of violence in Ireland and to challenge the leaders of the Church.

 
Fr. Des is also a prolific and insightful writer. As well as penning a weekly column in the Andersonstown News – which touches upon every issue imaginable – he has also written several books – An End to Silence; Democracy Denied; and The Way I See It. He is also a pamphleteer – Diary of 30 years – 1972; The Chaplin’s Affair – 1976; The Demonstration – 1982; Against Violence in Ireland – 1983; The Laughing Christian – 1999.

 
Fr. Des is a leader, a man of great courage and vision, a good neighbour, an honest down to earth decent human being. I am pleased to be able to call him friend. I will leave the last word to him. Writing about moving into Ballymurphy in 1972 Fr. Des later wrote:

 

I found the people very sophisticated; they don't get the credit for it. I used to make a joke: If suddenly the Pope came out on the balcony of St. Peter's and announced that he was going to get married, it's the people of Ballymurphy and Springhill who would take a very rational view; whereas a lot of middle-class people would react as if the world was falling apart - and a lot of ecclesiastical people too. But the people here would consider it very rationally, as they do so many things - because they're so close to the reality of life. A lot of the so called "problems" which the Church talks about are false problems; they're manufactured problems about marriage, etc. They've created these problems - like crossword puzzles. The problems that people in Ballymurphy face are real, not theoretical. They're not whether you stand up or sit down at the Creed. It's whether you live!

Fr. Des has lived well and he has more living to do. Go raibh maith agat. Lá briethe shona duit.

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