N. Ireland Politics

No Columbo moment in Ó Muilleoir's Nama quiz drama

Columbo Image copyright MCA TV
Image caption No-one was able to produce a Columbo-style, last-gasp piece of evidence, Mr Ó Muilleoir said

Plenty of showmanship but precious little substance.

That's probably a fair summation of the quizzing of Máirtín Ó Muilleoir by Stormont's Finance Committee on Wednesday.

The finance minister was called to answer questions on what knowledge he had of secret contacts between Sinn Féin colleagues and a witness to a Northern Ireland Assembly inquiry into alleged wrongdoing in the region's biggest ever property deal.

Daíthí McKay resigned in August after it emerged he had advised loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson ahead of his appearance before the Finance Committee in September 2015, which Mr McKay chaired at the time.

Mr Ó Muilleoir's name appeared in messages sent to Mr Bryson but he had previously denied any involvement in the back-channel correspondence and resisted calls to give up his ministerial post.

The session was delayed by an hour after an intervention by the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption Mr Ó Muilleoir dismissed the questioning, saying he knew "zilch" about the matter

A senior detective felt it was "inappropriate ... to have parliamentary scrutiny" of a matter that is the subject of a criminal investigation.

But, eventually, on the session went, and as he took his seat in committee room 29 of Parliament Buildings, Mr Ó Muilleoir cut a relaxed figure, adamant that he had "no questions to answer".

Zilch

The tension quickly rose, though, during his exchanges with chairperson Emma Little-Pengelly.

Each one of her questions was met with an insistence of no involvement.

And those insistences became more and more colourful as the session progressed.

His knowledge, he said, amounted to "zilch, nada, nothing".

And "those who were throwing the mud" over the claims, he added, "haven't been able to get any thread, any scintilla, any little square patch of evidence" linking him to the "disgraceful and inappropriate behaviour".

Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption Jamie Bryson is nothing more than an "empty vessel", the finance minister said

"Totally relaxed, totally chillaxed" was how he was feeling about the affair, but he turned on Jonathan Bell during the DUP MLA's go at popping the questions.

Mr Ó Muilleoir accused him of being the man who "bust the finances" of the Northern Ireland Executive due to his overseeing as enterprise minister a renewable energy scheme that could hit region's budget by "hundreds of millions of pounds".

"I'm cleaning up your mess," he jabbed.

Smug

Then came the turn of Jim Allister, who accused the minister of "pulling up the drawbridge".

It was another claim dismissed with a wry smile by Mr Ó Muilleoir.

He said he admired the TUV leader's "crescendo" and likened it to the end of an episode of TV detective show Columbo... but minus the last-gasp strand of evidence.

There was not "just one more thing", as the cigar-smoking cop from Los Angeles might have said.

"Sometimes those who are most smug fall the hardest," Mr Allister sniped back at the man in the spotlight.

Ultimately, little was learned - no ties were uncovered between Mr Ó Muilleoir and Mr Bryson.

The blogger has made some explosive claims since the Nama revelation first came to light, but the minister described him as nothing more than an "empty vessel".

And, as Mrs Little-Pengelly concluded, the question remains: "Who was filling that vessel?"

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