I thank the Chairman. I am quite hoarse as I was up late reading documents last night. I welcome this opportunity to present to the Committee of Public Accounts. I believe this informal engagement between representatives of our two committees will be a timely and viable opportunity to explore how we might work collaboratively on our respective inquiries into the NAMA Project Eagle sale.
In addressing you formally I will refer to our respective areas of focus and I will outline the activities and outputs from my committee’s work to date. I shall talk about the next steps and suggest some ways in which we might collaborate in a practical way. Clearly both committees have different areas of focus; the PAC’s specific interest is in investigating whether the Project Eagle sale provided value for money for taxpayers in the South while the Assembly committee is to examine the role of Stormont’s Department of Finance and Personnel, the DFP, in NAMA’s operations in the North. This includes the relationship with the Northern Ireland Advisory Committee in the context of Project Eagle. However, I believe there are key areas where our interests cross over and where a co-ordinated action could offer mutual benefit. I have some specific suggestions in this regard to which I will return.
Shortly after the Northern Assembly finance committee initiated its review in early July, the PSNI announced its investigation. In order to minimise the risk of prejudicing this or future court proceedings the committee developed terms of reference for its work which was informed by a meeting with investigators and by independent legal advice. Investigators held another useful meeting with senior National Crime Agency personnel last week. The committee has collated a growing body of written and oral evidence which is published on its website. This includes written communications with NAMA including questions and answers; correspondence with DFP; written submissions from other key players including Cerberus and Mr. Cushnahan; Hansard reports of the five oral hearings to date; and the papers released last night from the finance department.
Despite the significant public interest in the review, the efforts of the committee have been frustrated by some key witnesses. The continued reluctance of NAMA to appear before the committee is very much regretted. As its reason for not travelling to the North, NAMA has said that the appropriate forum to which it should account for its activities is the Oireachtas, and to committees established by the Oireachtas. This point is not disputed by my committee but greater co-operation from NAMA will be crucial if we are to fully understand its relationship with the Northern Assembly's Department of Finance and Personnel since 2009, including the role of the department in making nominations to the NI advisory committee. While NAMA has agreed to answer questions in writing, I believe there is increased onus to appear before the committee out of pure courtesy and respect for the institutions in the North. While critical of NAMA on this point I acknowledge that it has been more forthcoming than some witnesses who continue to cite the criminal investigation as a reason for not providing further written or oral evidence to the committee. I believe this position is becoming more untenable by the day.
Although the committee’s review is still at a relatively early stage I can report some tangible outputs already. It is beginning to establish a public record of key documents, including records of meetings and written submissions from key players. The committee has also prepared a comprehensive timeline of events that is updated as and when evidence and documentation is received. The oral testimony received to date is also highlighting the differing accounts of events which raises further questions and areas for scrutiny. Moreover, the publication of this emerging body of evidence has also informed the wider public discourse including in the media.
The committee is in the process of formulating and issuing further written questions to a range of witnesses and these include NAMA, Pimco, Cerberus and Mr. Frank Cushnahan. Invitations to oral hearings have been issued to the First Minister, former finance Ministers Simon Hamilton and Sammy Wilson, former permanent secretaries, former special advisers in the Department of Finance and Personnel and members of the NI advisory committee. The finance committee is expecting that all of these witnesses will make themselves available willingly and co-operate fully with the review. However, it will keep open the option of using its powers to compel persons and papers should that become necessary.
In conclusion, I wish to suggest some potential areas of common interest and practical measures which we might take to support our respective efforts and to assist each other in adding pieces to this complicated jigsaw. A key concern for both committees should be to investigate the information flow between NAMA and its northern advisory committee. In its written response to the committee on the 4 September, NAMA stated and I quote: "No specific information relating to debtors or assets was ever provided to external members of the NIAC". However, a question remains of precisely what information was shared. We know from the minutes of advisory committee meetings that commercial and confidential matters were discussed in some detail. Indeed, NAMA has redacted parts of the minutes which it has provided to the committee. It would be interesting to have an explanation for those redactions. It was also highlighted in the advisory committee minutes that section 202 of the NAMA Act which deals with the handling of confidential information also applies to the advisory committee including external members. Presumably that provision exists for a purpose.
We also know there was a crossover of membership between the NAMA board and the advisory committee. On 7 October 2013 at Tughans' offices in Belfast, the advisory committee discussed the unsolicited bid by Pimco and feedback was sought from the external members in order to inform the NAMA board’s consideration on 10 October 2013. We need therefore to establish the full facts on this relationship, not just in terms of the formal exchange of information but also the opportunities which individuals may have had to develop commercial intelligence on NAMA's assets and operations in the North.
A further area in which both committees may be able to support each other will be in getting to the bottom of the nominations and appointments of the external members to the advisory committee. A number of questions remain unanswered including where the responsibility rested for due diligence. In practical terms I believe that, as the inquiries progress, we could consider sharing information and papers as applicable. There is also scope for our respective committees to provide each other with suggested areas for questioning of witnesses whose oral evidence is of mutual interest. I thank the Cathaoirleach for this opportunity to address the committee and I welcome continued engagement. I am happy to respond to any questions that members may have and I look forward to hearing their views or suggestions.