Máirtín Ó Muilleoir slammed for 'stupid' response

Finance Minister described a question about the Jamie Bryson backchannel as "stupid". Picture by Ann McManus
Finance Minister described a question about the Jamie Bryson backchannel as "stupid". Picture by Ann McManus Finance Minister described a question about the Jamie Bryson backchannel as "stupid". Picture by Ann McManus

FINANCE Minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir has been criticised for dismissing a journalist's question about the Jamie Bryson coaching controversy as "stupid".

The South Belfast MLA made the remark yesterday during an interview with the BBC. Ulster Unionist MLA Philip Smith said the questioning of Mr Ó Muilleoir was valid and likened the minister's reaction to that of Gerry Adams when quizzed by a reporter in 2010 about IRA membership.

The finance minister has faced calls to stand aside until the assembly's standards commissioner conducts an investigation into the secret exchanges involving Mr Bryson, North Antrim MLA Daithí McKay and Sinn Féin worker Thomas O'Hara.

Last month, The Irish News revealed how ahead of last September's finance committee hearing into the sale of Nama's £1.25bn northern loan portfolio, Mr Bryson had been advised via Twitter direct messages how to air an allegation against former First Minister Peter Robinson.

The one-time flag protester subsequently claimed that Mr Robinson stood to benefit financially from Nama's disposal of the Project Eagle loan book. The former DUP leader denies the allegation.

The back channel revelations triggered Mr McKay's resignation and suspension from the party alongside Mr O'Hara.

But because the messages mentioned Ó Muilleoir and his potential to ask questions at certain points, there have demands for the finance minister to step aside until an investigation into the matter is concluded. DUP leader and First Minister Arlene Foster joined the calls earlier this week but conceded that such a move would ultimately be Ó Muilleoir's decision.

During yesterday's interview with the BBC, the finance minister again insisted he would be remaining in post.

"Two weeks ago I spoke to the BBC, UTV, RTE and I said I'd no hand, act or part in these exchanges – that remains the position," he said.

"What is more important is that since this particular story broke, I predicted that there would be no evidence of any type to connect me to the story – two weeks on no-one has produced even the slightest piece of evidence to taint me in any way."

Mr Ó Muilleoir was then pressed by presenter Joel Taggart if at any stage in the days leading up to Mr Bryson's Stormont appearance he spoke to Mr McKay.

"That's sort of a stupid question because Daithí McKay and I were on the committee together in relation to this," the minister responded.

"I relation to this issue I have said repeatedly that I had nothing to do with these exchanges; no knowledge of them; no information about them."

Finance Committee member Mr Smith said Mr Ó Muilleoir’s dismissing the question as "stupid" would not make the issue go away.

"I have no doubt that Mr Ó Muilleoir would like the allegations to disappear but these are very valid questions and require a more detailed answer," he said.

"Whilst we hear his comments relating to the Twitter exchanges, can he confirm that there was no party pre-meeting or staff briefing to Sinn Féin committee members prior to Mr Bryson giving evidence? If there was indeed any such meeting what was the substance of that conversation?"

The Strangford MLA likened the response to Gerry Adams dismissing a reporter's question as "stupid" when the Sinn Féin leader was asked if he was ever in the IRA.

"Given Sinn Féin’s past record, such as Gerry Adams denial of his membership of the IRA, it is simply not enough to dismiss this line of questioning as stupid," Mr Smith said.