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Finance minister adamant he knew nothing of coaching controversy

Finance Minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir at yesterday's finance committee session

FINANCE minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir has again insisted he had no knowledge of the back channel involving party colleague Daithí McKay and loyalist Jamie Bryson in the Nama 'coaching' controversy.

The Sinn Féin minister faced Stormont's finance committee yesterday to answer questions about what he knew of contacts with the controversial blogger ahead of an appearance in front of MLAs in September last year.

The Irish News revealed in August secret correspondence involving Mr McKay, the then chairman of the finance and personnel committee, Sinn Féin worker Thomas O'Hara and Mr Bryson.

Among exchanges with the former flag protester, the Sinn Féin worker appeared to suggest that Mr Ó Muilleoir could step in ask certain questions during the evidence session that formed part of the committee's probe into Nama's sale of its northern portfolio.

Mr McKay resigned following the coaching revelations.

But in an appearance that was first delayed and then lasted much longer than anticipated, the new finance minister was adamant that he had "no involvement" in the scandal.

Mr Ó Muilleoir made an opening statement in which he reiterated that he knew nothing of Mr McKay and Mr O'Hara's correspondence with Mr Bryson.

Later, under persistent questioning from committee chair Emma Little-Pengelly, he responded: "What part of 'no involvement with, no part in, no knowledge of' does the committee - with all due respect - not understand?

"I had no involvement whatsoever with this particular affair - none, zilch, nada, nothing."

Mr Ó Muilleoir said those who were "throwing the mud" over the controversy "haven't been able to get any thread, any scintilla" of evidence linking him to this "disgraceful and inappropriate behaviour".

He again rejected calls for him to step down from his role as finance minister.

The South Belfast MLA did, however, use his platform to attack former economy minister Jonathan Bell, who Mr Ó Muilleoir accused of "busting the finances" of the executive while overseeing a renewables heat incentive scheme.

The DUP representative responded that he had only been in charge at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment for a year.

The committee proceedings were delayed by up to 50 minutes by an eleventh-hour intervention from police, who themselves are investigating the coaching controversy following a complaint by the DUP.

Detective Superintendent Kevin Geddes from the PSNI's serious crime branch wrote to MLAs just minutes before their scrutiny session was set to begin,

Police said they had requested that the hearing did not "include scrutiny of an individual involved in proceedings of the committee in September 2015".

The committee then went into closed session where members discussed the implications of the intervention.

"Police do not wish to impede in any way the business of the assembly and will endeavour to progress our enquiries as quickly as possible," Mr Geddis said afterwards.

"The request was made as it was considered to be inappropriate at this time to have parliamentary scrutiny of events which are the subject of a criminal investigation by police."

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