First Minister Arlene Foster joins calls for Sinn Féin finance minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir to step aside
FIRST Minister Arlene Foster has backed calls for Finance Minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir to step aside until probes into the Nama coaching scandal are concluded.
The DUP leader's remarks about the backchannel bid to discredit her predecessor Peter Robinson came eight days after The Irish News broke the story.
Earlier this week, Stormont's finance committee voted to write to Mr Ó Muilleoir asking him to step down during an investigation by standards commissioner Douglas Bain.
The DUP has also asked the PSNI to probe the messages between former Sinn Féin finance committee chairman Daithí McKay and loyalist Jamie Bryson.
In the exchanges with Mr Bryson, which were latterly through an account belonging to Sinn Féin activist Thomas O'Hara, the one-time flag protester is coached on when to air allegations of corruption against Mr Robinson while giving evidence on Nama's sale of the Project Eagle loan portfolio. Mr Robinson denies he was to benefit from the sale.
The messages also make reference to the possibility of Mr Ó Muilleoir being lined up to ask questions.
The Sinn Féin finance minister has said he had no knowledge of the backchannel.
Mr McKay resigned from his assembly seat within hours of the revelations while Mr O'Hara has been suspended from the party.
Mr Ó Muilleoir has so far resisted the calls for him to stand aside and is being backed by Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.
Mrs Foster told the BBC: "I believe, on balance, it would be to the benefit of the institutions if he had stepped aside even temporarily."
But the first minister said the decision was ultimately Sinn Féin's.
"Sinn Fein have decided he is to remain in place and at the end of the day it is their call," she said.
Mrs Foster described the messages at the centre of the controversy as a "disgraceful attempt to impugn and discredit" her party's former leader.
Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt said the first minister's response "again contradicted" the DUP claim that the party fixed the issue of ministerial accountability and stopped solo runs in the St Andrews Agreement a decade ago.
"This morning Arlene Foster finally caught up and expressed support for the position the Ulster Unionist Party were first to take – that Finance Minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir should step aside while the issue of the Nama coaching saga is investigated," he said.
"However, she continued by stating it was not her call, he was not her minister and that was the end of the matter."
Mr Nesbitt said it was an "odd position" for the head of a devolved government to take.
"So much for the DUP’s boast post-St Andrews that they had fixed the Belfast Agreement in terms of ministerial accountability and solo runs," he said.
The UUP leader said the 2007 DUP manifesto stated: "Ministers will no longer be able to act alone, in narrow party interests."
Nr Nesbitt said this had been "proved to be baloney".
"The finance minister and any other Sinn Féin minister will stay in position and remain in position entirely at the behest of Sinn Féin, and joint first minister Martin McGuinness – that is the reality of the Sinn Féin/DUP coalition," he said.
Video: the Nama coaching scandal explained in 60 seconds