The Sinn Fein minister in charge of Northern Ireland’s public spending has defied new calls from nationalists and unionists alike for him to step aside over the Daithi McKay scandal.
During a specially-convened meeting of Stormont’s Finance Committee, the overwhelming bulk of MLAs voted to endorse a letter to Mairtin O Muilleoir, asking him to stand down temporarily while his conduct is investigated.
However, amid what one MLA described as “a hurricane of questions” about his alleged possible involvement in the affair, Sinn Fein issued a statement afterwards declaring that Mr O Muilleoir intends to hold on to his post.
The meeting followed calls from individual politicians last week for him to temporarly quit the role, to which he had been appointed in May.
It has emerged that Mr O Muilleoir’s name had appeared in secret Twitter exchanges last year between loyalist figure Jamie Bryson and two Sinn Fein men – one of them being a party member called Thomas O’Hara, and the other being politician Daithi McKay.
In the exchanges, Mr Bryson was guided about the most effective way to air allegations of supposed wrongdoing by Peter Robinson when Mr Bryson appeared before Stormont’s Finance Committee.
At the time, the committee was chaired by Daithi McKay. Among its members was Mr O Muilleoir.
Both Mr O’Hara and Daithi McKay were suspended by Sinn Fein after the messages were published last week.
Mr McKay also resigned as MLA for North Antrim and accepted that his contact with a committee witness had been “inappropriate” – but denied that his intention had been to “coach” him in his testimony.
Mr O Muilleoir – and Sinn Fein at large – have denied knowing anything about these Twitter exchanges.
At yesterday’s meeting (which took place while MLAs are supposed to be on recess) DUP finance committee chairwoman Emma Pengelly said: “Any request for the finance minister to step aside is not a judgment as to whether he is guilty of any allegation...
“Ultimately this is a request for him to step aside from the committee – it will be a decision for him. I think there is much for him to reflect on.”
A majority of members voted to send a letter to the minister asking him to stand down from his ministerial role while an investigation by the Assembly’s Commissioner for Standards takes place.
The committee also agreed to call Mr O Muilleoir to come before it to answer questions.
Just one Sinn Fein member was present at the hearing to defend him – Caitriona Ruane (John O’Dowd, the other Sinn Fein member, was absent).
Ms Ruane voted against the idea of asking Mr O Muilleoir to step aside, telling the committee: “I won’t be supporting writing to the Finance Minister asking him to resign – he has done nothing wrong.
“He has been very open and accountable in relation to what he has said.”
After the meeting, Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness said: “Mairtin O Muilleoir enjoys my full support as finance minister and he will not be stepping aside on the basis of calls from opposition parties, much less calls from the DUP.”
The UUP’s Philip Smith meanwhile said that the committee had also agreed that Mr O Muilleoir should “provide all and any records of conversations or communication between himself and Daithi McKay... and anyone acting on behalf of Mr McKay”.
He added: “I welcome the fact that there was general agreement that the recent revelations have caused damage to the credibility of the Stormont committee system and that we have to act swiftly and decisively to rebuild public trust and confidence.”
The SDLP’s Gerry Mullan issued a statement in which he said the minister should “appear before this committee so he can unambiguously respond to the hurricane of questions that remain unanswered, namely: Was he prepped to ask certain questions? Was he prompted to ensure Jamie Bryson’s evidence was heard in open session?
“Did he receive any communication from McKay or O’Hara or other Sinn Fein staff with regard to the appearance of any other witnesses?”
Background to a scandal:
The whole saga has its roots in allegations which were first made in July 2015.
At that time, independent Irish politician Mick Wallace made a claim in the Dublin parliament that millions of pounds had been earmarked for a Northern Irish politician linked to the sale of a huge package of property loans.
The loans had been under the ownership of Irish government body Nama (the National Assest Management Agency), and were sold on to a US-based outfit called Cerberus.
This package, which initially had a value of £4.5bn, was sold for around £1.4bn.
An inquiry was then launched into the Nama affair by Stormont’s finance committee, under the chairmanship of Daithi McKay.
During that inquiry, Jamie Bryson was asked to attend as a witness. When he appeared in September he made the claim that Peter Robinson was among five people who were supposed to get a share of a “success fee” linked to the sale of the loans.
All parties involved in the loan transaction have denied wrongdoing.
Peter Robinson himself utterly dismissed the allegations, calling them “outrageous and groundless”.
It was revealed in the Irish News last week that among the secret messages exchanged before Mr Bryson’s appearance were ones which discussed how best to name Mr Robinson in the committee without interruption.
Another message from Mr O’Hara said: “I’m just trying to establish what Mairtin (O Mullieor) or someone can jump upon and say ‘there’s no way we can turn him away this is credible, relevant and in the public interest’.”
Another exchange suggested trying “to get Mairtín to say something in the meeting”.