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Stormont parties sceptical over Daithí McKay 'solo run' claims

Sinn Féin's Daithi McKay resigned within hours of the revelations. Picture by Cliff Donaldson

SINN Féin's political opponents were last night unanimous in their scepticism over the claim that the party's leadership was unaware that former Stormont finance committee chairman Daithí McKay coached loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson.

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness yesterday distanced himself and his party from the controversy sparked by The Irish News's revelations about messages between Mr McKay and Mr Bryson ahead of a finance committee hearing into the Nama scandal.

Mr McKay, widely regarded as one of Sinn Féin's rising stars, was suspended by the party yesterday morning and resigned as an MLA shortly afterwards.

His seat at Stormont will be filled in the coming days through co-option, with Causeway Coast and Glens councillor Cara McShane mooted as his likely successor.

The former finance committee chairman said his contact with Mr Bryson ahead of the prominent loyalist's appearance at Stormomt last September was "inappropriate, ill-advised and wrong".

Mr McKay apologised for his actions but said his intention was not to coach the witness but to "ensure that the inquiry had full access to the truth".

"This scandal was and remains an unresolved matter of wholesale fraud and corruption at the highest level affecting parties across the board," he said.

"I hope that my own error of judgement on a matter of process will not provide cover or obscure the real and unresolved questions of substance which remain."

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness distanced himself from Mr McKay. Picture by Brian Lawless/PA Wire

The statement from Mr McGuinness described the revelations as "profoundly disturbing".

"I want to state categorically that I had absolutely no knowledge of this exchange or contact," the deputy first minister said.

"And having spoken to all relevant personnel in the assembly I am now entirely satisfied that Sinn Féin had no knowledge of any such contact."

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But his words were met with scepticism by the other Stormont parties.

While Sinn Féin's partners in government stopped short of saying they did not believe Mr McGuinness, DUP sources said the claim was "taken with more than a pinch of salt"

The DUP's Mervyn Storey called for an investigation into the former North Antrim MLA's actions.

"The people of Northern Ireland and in particular my constituents in North Antrim deserve to what extent Mr McKay sought to influence this inquiry," he said.

"It is vital the public can have full confidence in our democratic processes and anyone who has been involved in this disgraceful episode must face the full consequences."

Ulster Unionist Mike Nesbitt said he did not believe Mr McKay "was on a solo run".

"If you look at the culture within Sinn Féin, everything gets run through Connolly House, everything is approved, nobody acts on their own initiative," he said.

"It is incredible to think that Diathí McKay would risk everything without seeking some sort of political cover internally."

Jamie Bryson arrives at Parliament Buildings in Belfast to give evidence to Stormont's Finance Committee on the controversial sale of Nama's NI assets to a US investor. Picture: Niall Carson/PA Wire

The Strangford MLA said Stormont's already damaged reputation had "taken another hit".

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the revelations would "further erode the public’s faith".

He said the controversy could not be allowed to get in the way of the Stormont probe in to the sale of Nama's Project Eagle loan portfolio.

"The SDLP will ensure that the effort to uncover the truth around Nama is not derailed by Sinn Féin who have willingly endangered the integrity of this investigation through their contempt for democracy and accountability," the Foyle MLA said.

Alliance deputy leader Naomi Long said she found it "incredibly difficult" to believe that Mr McKay was acting without his party leadership's approval.

"That explanation may have satisfied the deputy first minister but the wider assembly and more importantly, the general public, may not be content with it," she said.

Green leader Steven Agnew said The Irish News revelations had damaged public trust in the devolved institutions.

"I am also surprised that the Sinn Féin hierarchy apparently knew nothing about the alleged communications between their representatives and Jamie Bryson – it is my opinion that a solo run by anyone in Sinn Féin is highly unlikely," he said.

People Before Profit's Gerry Carroll said: "It's time we had a full accounting of these shenanigans so that all of the details can be made public as soon as possible."

TUV leader Jim Allister said he expected Sinn Féin to distance itself from Mr McKay.

"But," he said, "I for one do not believe that with Stalinist-type control within Sinn Féin one of their committee chairs would have acted in isolation."

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