A Stormont scrutiny committee has called on Northern Ireland’s finance minister to stand aside pending the outcome of a probe into a party colleague’s back channel contact with an inquiry witness.
Máirtín Ó Muilleoir has so far resisted pressure to temporarily step down after the controversy that forced the resignation of Daithí McKay, a former Sinn Fein chairman of the assembly’s finance committee.
The committee broke from summer recess to hold an emergency session yesterday to discuss the furore surrounding Mr McKay’s handling of its inquiry into allegations of impropriety in Northern Ireland’s largest ever property deal.
Mr McKay apologised and quit as an assembly member last week after admitting “inappropriate” communication with Jamie Bryson, a loyalist blogger, prior to his appearance before the committee.
Private messages were exchanged between Mr Bryson and the Twitter accounts of Mr McKay and Thomas O’Hara, a Sinn Fein party worker. Both republicans have been suspended by Sinn Fein.
The contacts were made before the loyalist made explosive claims to the finance committee about the efforts of Ireland’s National Asset Management Agency to sell its Northern Ireland portfolio to US investors.
Mr Bryson alleged that Peter Robinson was set to benefit from the £1.2 billion transaction — a claim that the former Democratic Unionist first minister vehemently denied.
The Twitter messages published in the press last week made reference to Mr Ó Muilleoir, who was at the time a member of the finance committee, indicating how he might intervene during the evidence session involving Mr Bryson.
Mr Ó Muilleoir has insisted he had no knowledge of the back channel and Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein’s deputy first minister, has given him his full backing. But during yesterday’s hastily convened committee hearing a number of members questioned the finance minister’s denials.
A majority 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.
Caitríona Ruane, the sole Sinn Fein member present at the hearing, voted against the move.
Emma Pengelly, the DUP committee chair, said that the minister should temporarily leave office to ensure public confidence.
“Any request for him to step aside is not a judgement as to whether he is guilty of any allegation,” she said. “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.”
The committee also agreed to call Mr Ó Muilleoir to come before members to answer questions.
The 2014 deal between Nama and US investment giant Cerberus has been dogged by controversy after £7 million linked to it was found in an Isle of Man bank account. Critics have claimed that the arrangement included multimillion-pound fixer fees. All parties involved in the 2014 transaction have denied wrongdoing.
Ms Ruane said Mr Ó Muilleoir had done nothing wrong. She claimed the committee had no remit to investigate the conduct of assembly members and accused fellow members of treading on the territory of Douglas Bain, the assembly standards commissioner.
“I won’t be supporting writing to the finance minister asking him to resign. He has done nothing wrong,” she said. “He has been very open and accountable in relation to what he has said.”
The Sinn Fein MLA was the minister’s lone defender at the committee table as other members took it in turn to question his position.
Jim Wells of the DUP said there was a “cloud of doubt” hanging over his denials.
He said Mr Ó Muilleoir had been Sinn Fein’s “star performer” when it came to questioning witnesses before the Nama inquiry.
“It is absolutely unbelievable and inconceivable that the lead person who was questioning the Nama witnesses was unaware of what the previous chair was up to,” he said.
Referencing Watergate, Mr Wells added: “The question is what did he know and when did he know it?”
Philip Smith, of the Ulster Unionists, said a wider inquiry was required which went beyond Mr Bain’s investigation of Mr McKay.
“There’s an awful lot more that needs to be investigated and discussed here rather than just who saw what tweet or who was involved in particular Twitter conversations,” he said.
The SDLP’s Gerry Mullan said the public did not believe Sinn Fein’s insistence that Mr McKay was acting as a lone wolf.
After the committee hearing, Mr McGuinness again made clear that he had total confidence in Mr O Muilleoir.
“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,” he said.
Mr O Muilleoir also issued an emphatic statement making clear he would not be leaving his post. “There is no basis for me to step aside as Finance Minister and I have no absolutely intention of doing so,” he said.