It was Jo Moore, the press adviser to a minister in one of Britain’s slickest media-handling administrations, Tony Blair’s Labour government from 1997, who memorably circulated an email to party colleagues at the same time as the World Trade Center buildings were coming down, saying “It’s now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury. Councillors’ expenses?” We know that politicians and their periphery are a devious lot, so on Budget 2013 day on Wednesday, the sharp-eyed will have been on the look-out to see what was being buried on that day. It seems that the Fianna Fail leader was suspicious at finally receiving the previous day what he described as “another large bundle of freedom of information documents on the selection of primary care centres and the addition of centres at Swords and Balbriggan”.
Deputy Martin went to on challenge An Taoiseach at Leaders Questions why during a 20-minute period between 6.02pm on 16th July 2012 and 6.22pm, that the two sites in Minister for Health James Reilly’s Dublin North constituency of Swords and Balbriggan were added to a list for development as primary care centres under a public private partnership arrangement. There was no apparent justification on any grounds – “algorithmic regressions” or otherwise – for the inclusion of the two sites over a 20-minute period, remembering that the two sites added to the list were bumped up from their position on what was the official list which was based on transparent merit. An Toaiseach responded” The Minister, Deputy Reilly, had no function whatsoever in the selection of sites for primary care centres [interrupted by Deputy Micheál Martin: That is not the point.] as distinct from locations that he would have determined by the expanded criteria that he set out.”
An Taoiseach then went on to lecture Deputy Martin on what he should be interested in, and the matter was not addressed.
Away from the heated exchanges in the Dail chamber, An Ceann Comhairle Sean Barrett – himself a man who has experienced controversy with developers and donations from Frank Dunlop, even though the donations were judged by the Mahon Tribunal not to have been corrupt – intervened to block a parliamentary question (PQ) from the Sinn Fein finance spokesperson Pearse Doherty.
You might recall that in previous PQs, it had been established that Minister Reilly had himself met with NAMA in April 2012 to discuss a Balbriggan site for a primary health centre though Minister Reilly says no specific address was mentioned.
We also knew from previous PQs that NAMA does not provide, even to ministers, details of loans under their management. The NAMA Act protects the confidentiality of such information between NAMA and its borrowers.
And yet Minister Reilly was able to tell Deputy Joe Higgins of the Socialist Party in the Dail on 3rd October 2012 “Deputy Joe Higgins should note that the site is under the control of NAMA and that, as a consequence, Mr. Murphy does not gain. NAMA gains if there is any gain. NAMA represents the people in trying to get back the moneys that were lost.”
The “Mr Murphy” referred to above is a Balbriggan businessman and developer, Seamus Murphy who, it has been established, is both a Fine Gael supporter and an associate of the health minister.
At this point, the audience who is less familiar with NAMA may wish to consider the fact that NAMA has acquired about €74bn of loans, mostly relating to property, from five Irish banks. About 15-20% of the loans are performing, in other words, although NAMA may be called a “bad bank”, not all of its loans are bad. For example, it is understood that David Daly and Bill Durkan are understood to have repaid 100% of their loans already.
Yet, we have Minister Reilly able to tell another deputy in the Dail, that in the case of the property at 66,68 and 70 Dublin Street, Balbriggan, the developer who is an associate of the minister, will not gain from the sale of the property as part of a deal to develop a primary care centre.
Now, how would Minister Reilly know the loan details for the Balbriggan site, that is, what loan was outstanding on the site and how much the site would be sold for? After all, unless he had both bits of information, how could he tell Deputy Joe Higgins “Mr. Murphy does not gain”? Curious?
So Sinn Fein’s Pearse Doherty asked another PQ “To ask the Minister for Health, further to his statement in the Dail on 3rd October 2012 when he stated “Deputy Joe Higgins should note that the site is under the control of NAMA and that, as a consequence, Mr. Murphy does not gain. NAMA gains if there is any gain”, to provide the grounds on which he believes this statement to be correct, that is, firstly that the site is under the control of NAMA and secondly that Mr Murphy does not gain from the transaction”
And the response from An Ceann Comhairle is “The Minister has no official responsibility to Dail Eireann for this matter which contains argument and does not seek information as contemplated by Standing Orders.”
You see, the only conclusion that can be drawn, is that Minister Reilly discussed the finances of the site at 66,68 and 70 Dublin Street, Balbriggan with his associate Seamus Murphy, because NAMA doesn’t disclose confidential information. And if Minister Reilly did discuss the finances of the site and if Minister Reilly did add two sites including this one over a 20-minute period on 19th July 2012 and hasn’t provided a defence of why he bumped these two sites above other more deserving sites based on a transparent merit grading exercise, then are we entitled to conclude that not only was the minister engaged in stroke politics and pork-barreling in bringing resources to his own constituency but that he had involved himself in the finances of the scheme where his associate was a beneficiary of the scheme, if only to secure a sale of a property in a market which is still moribund.
And when the Opposition tries to hold the Minister to account for his statements, it is told by An Ceann Comhairle that “the Minister has no official responsibility for this matter” and that after the Minister makes a statement in the Dail which seemingly relies on confidential information relating to the site and the loan, the Opposition is told that its question “contains argument” when it seeks to establish the grounds on which the Minister made the statement.
There is a saying “oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive” and now we see the July 16th machination encompassing a Taoiseach and a Ceann Comhairle in a tangled web of, at best, stroke politics.