Máirtín Ó Muilleoir digs in amid growing pressure to step aside

Finance committee chairwoman Emma Little-Pengelly has called for Máirtín Ó Muilleoir to step aside. Picture by Mal McCann

MAIRTIN Ó Muilleoir was resisting growing pressure on Tuesday night to temporarily step aside as finance minister until the probe into the backchanneling controversy concludes.

The DUP joined the rest of Stormont's main parties earlier on Tuesday in calling for the South Belfast MLA to vacate his seat at the executive table while standards commissioner Douglas Bain conducts a probe into the actions of former finance committee chairman Daithí McKay.

Mr Ó Muilleoir was cited in the messages between Mr McKay's assistant Thomas O'Hara and loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson.

Who is Thomas O'Hara?

The correspondence revealed by The Irish News last week shows the former finance committee chairman's assistant 'coaching' Mr Bryson ahead of last September's Stormont hearing into the sale of Nama's Project Eagle loan portfolio.

"I'm just trying to establish what Máirtín or someone can jump upon and say: 'there's no way we can turn him away, this is credible, relevant and in the public interest'," one message from Mr O'Hara to Mr Bryson said.

Another states: "Try to get Máirtín to say something in the meeting, even let him see how comprehensive the document is, so as he knows it's not bullshit."

During his evidence to the committee, Mr Bryson claimed the then First Minister Peter Robinson was to benefit financially from the £1 billion-plus property deal – a claim the former DUP leader denies.

Stormont's finance committee held a specially convened meeting on Tuesday to discuss the revelations that led to Mr McKay's resignation last week.

Read the communication

A majority of members voted to send a letter to the finance minister asking him to temporarily stand down from his ministerial role. The sole Sinn Féin member present at the hearing – Caitríona Ruane – voted against the move.

Mrs Ruane said Mr O Muilleoir had done nothing wrong. She claimed the committee had no remit to investigate the conduct of assembly members and accused fellow members of treading on the territory of Stormont's standards commissioner.

DUP committee chair Emma Little Pengelly echoed recent calls from the Ulster Unionists, Alliance and SDLP, saying the minister should temporarily leave office to ensure public confidence.

"Ultimately this is a request for him to step aside from the committee – it will be a decision for him. I think there is much for him to reflect on," she said.

The committee also agreed to call Mr O Muilleoir to come before members to answer questions.

Ulster Unionist Philip Smith said a wider inquiry was required which went beyond Mr Bain's investigation of Mr McKay.

"There's an awful lot more that needs to be investigated and discussed here rather than just who saw what tweet or who was involved in particular Twitter conversations," he said.

What is Nama?

The SDLP's Gerry Mullan said the public did not believe Sinn Féin's insistence that Mr McKay was acting as a lone wolf.

"The actions of Sinn Féin during a committee investigation has impacted in a major negative way in public perception and public confidence in the whole political process and I think there does need to be serious clarity and there are a number of serious questions that do need to be answered," he said.

Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) leader Jim Allister described the revelations as "appalling", but said the controversy could not be used by the DUP to "bury" the committee's inquiry report on the Nama sale.

"I believe you would not be justified in burying it or putting it in the bin," he said.

Mr O Muilleoir dismissed the calls on Tuesday night for him to step aside. Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness also backed the under pressure minister – and took a swipe at his partners in government.

"Máirtín Ó Muilleoir enjoys my full support as finance minister and he will not be stepping aside on the basis of calls from opposition parties, much less calls from the DUP," Mr McGuinness said.

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