A Stormont scrutiny committee has requested a full briefing on a developing criminal investigation into Northern Ireland’s biggest ever property deal to establish whether its own political probe can resume.
Finance Committee chairwoman Emma Pengelly stressed the need to ensure its examination of the £1.2 billion sale of properties held by the Irish Republic’s “bad bank” – the National Asset Management Agency (Nama) – did not prejudice the fraud investigation by the UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA).
The committee convened for its first scheduled meeting of the new Assembly term just hours after two men arrested by the NCA in connection with the Nama deal were released on bail pending further inquiries.
The criminal investigation into the sale of Nama’s northern assets and property loans to US investment fund Cerberus was sparked by the discovery of a £7 million offshore transfer to an Isle of Man bank.
The Finance Committee conducted its own inquiry in the last 12 months, as did the Irish Dail’s Public Accounts Committee.
The Stormont committee produced what was essentially an interim report earlier this year before the Assembly was dissolved ahead of last month’s election.
One of the first decisions for the new-look committee will be whether to resume its investigation into the transaction.
Ms Pengelly, who is new to the committee’s chairmanship, said it was important members received a briefing from the NCA before embarking on detailed discussions on the fate of the inquiry.
“We need to be very careful we don’t prejudice justice and the ongoing investigations into this,” she said.
The DUP MLA added: “I am indicating that I think we should have an early discussion with the NCA before we have any other substantive discussion around this matter just to ensure we keep ourselves absolutely right on this and we keep everybody else right on this.”
Searches were carried out in Co Down on Tuesday as part of the operation that resulted in the two arrests.
A separate investigation into the affair is being run by the US Department of Justice’s Securities and Exchange Commission amid a raft of allegations about fixer fees behind the deal.
Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny has rejected calls for a state inquiry, insisting that no allegations of wrongdoing had been made against Nama.
It is the so-called “bad bank” set up in Ireland at the height of the financial crisis to take property-linked loans off the books of bailed-out banks.
It signed off on the Project Eagle deal in April 2014 by selling 800 property-linked loans to Cerberus, a multibillion fund which boasts former US vice president Dan Quayle in its ranks.
But the sale has been dogged by controversy since allegations were first made under parliamentary privilege that some of the money in the Isle of Man account was destined for a politician.
Further revelations, also under parliamentary privilege, separately claimed £45 million had been earmarked for fixers and there were five beneficiaries of the £7 million.
All parties involved in the £1.2 billion transaction in 2014 have denied wrongdoing.
Cerberus won the auction by offering £1.241 billion for loans linked to the Northern Ireland properties when the reserve price was £1.24 billion.
During Wednesday’s committee hearing at Parliament Buildings, Belfast, members stressed the need to continue the inquiry.
Sinn Fein’s John O’Dowd said the full truth had yet to emerge but he echoed the need for caution in terms of how the committee proceeded.
“We fully endorse openness and transparency and full truth being revealed around that,” he said.
“It’s a matter of deep concern on both sides of the border and in both institutions on both sides of the border and we don’t believe the truth has been fully discovered in relation to it.
“We need to be completely sure that the committee is acting within its remit and not impeding or impeaching any other procedures that are going on.”
Ulster Unionist committee member Ross Hussey said the inquiry had to be “top of the list”.
“We can’t allow this to go away because this is something that really is certainly in the public eye,” he said.
“It would be the eye of the storm if we allowed it to disappear. We are talking about an awful lot of public money and I think even if it takes the entire mandate and beyond this is something that has to be taken and shaken until we get all the answers we want.”
The SDLP’s Claire Hanna said there was no reason the committee’s inquiry could not continue “in parallel” to the police probes.
“A key part of our programme has to be a very rigorous investigation into the outstanding issues around the Nama sale portfolio,” she said.
Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister said public confidence in the committee would be dinted if its probe was not resumed.