Yesterday saw the first in what will be a series of high-profile sessions by the Public Accounts Committee. Billed as a heavyweight clash between Nama and the body which has levelled serious criticisms against it, in some ways it failed to live up to the billing. This is such a dense and nuanced story that things which seem significant can turn out to be nothing, and something that seems inconsequential can later be really important. The devil is invariably in the detail on Project Eagle, but the central question – that of whether taxpayers got the most out of the process possible – is still of vital public interest.
One thing that stood out for me was Alan Kelly’s assertion that Nama had offered selective briefings to members, not related to mundane or procedural matters; I’d like to hear more on that, because if his view is correct, it seems that the capacity of Project Eagle to spawn more and more controversies (even in the process of being investigated!) is unlimited.
Apart from that, both parties were digging into their previous positions. The C&AG had been keeping quiet in public, but as my colleague Hugh O’Connell alluded to in recent weeks, they were just keeping their powder dry. They launched a robust defence of their position, focusing particularly on Nama’s allegations that they didn’t have sufficient expertise, and didn’t robustly interrogate their own work before publishing it. Laying out their CVs, it’s hard to quibble with the professional capacities of the C&AG staff; they may never have worked in the private construction sector, but as Seamus McCarthy pointed out, they’re not doctors and it doesn’t stop them auditing the HSE. We also found out that they did have their work checked by the British equivalent of their office before publishing; Nama says that this doesn’t go far enough. There’s a bit of he said/she said to this, but just last week Nama were saying that the C&AG didn’t bother checking their homework, effectively. Doesn’t look like that is the case now.
As for Nama, they went in hard on the numbers. That is the strategy here: introduce enough doubt over the C&AG’s maths and the assumptions underpinning the report. It also suits Nama to be talking about the numbers, even if that means effectively publicly questioning the C&AG’s competence (as an aside, if this office’s work is of the standard Nama is alleging, we’ve got bigger issues than just the C&AG work on Project Eagle. We would have problems then about the oversight of spending in the state). It suits them to talk about the numbers, I think, because they can win on it, or at least fight the C&AG to a standstill.
If you’re talking about the numbers, it also means you’re not talking about the sales structure, or the management of conflicts of interest, both of which the C&AG has hit the red alert button over. To be fair to Nama, they did address both these things – Frank Daly’s whole opening statement was devoted to it, and they answered plenty of questions and their argument is consistent. Frank Cushnahan had no access to debtor data. NIAC was a talking shop. Repeat ad nauseam. But beyond that, increasingly it’s becoming a case of ‘we’re right, they’re wrong’.
Here’s why I think there’s a public trust angle for Nama here. Take, for example, the concerns of bidders over Pimco’s early access to the data room, or Frank Cushnahan’s consultancy with debtors who had almost £1 billion of loans in Nama. This only came out in the C&AG report. With no C&AG report, I don’t think we’d ever, ever know about this stuff. What I think people might find troubling is that all this was arguably dragged out of Nama. And when these facts came out, Nama says these are no big deal; but they are. Because it’s information like this which finally broke the political will to hold back an inquiry. That’s as close to objectively being a big deal as you get in politics.
All in all, plenty there for the Project Eagle kremlinologists to pick over (more on that this weekend), but in terms of gotcha moments, it didn’t happen.