Sinn Féin accused of striking Nama non-aggression pact with DUP
Sinn Féin was last night accused of giving the DUP a "soft landing" on Nama.
The opposition parties had yesterday hoped to expose differences between the executive's ruling parties by debating an issue that has had the DUP and Sinn Féin at odds since the Project Eagle controversy first blew up last year.
Former finance committee chairman Daithí McKay spearheaded an assembly inquiry between July 2015 and February this year, when MLAs produced an interim report into the £1.24bn sale of Nama's northern loan portfolio.
However, Mr McKay has since resigned as an MLA after it emerged that he been secretly 'coaching' inquiry witness Jamie Bryson.
Since May's election, a new inquiry by the replacement Stormont scrutiny committee has stalled, with DUP members reluctant to continue while the National Crime Agency is investigating.
With smaller parties understood to be in favour of a renewed inquiry, the focus has shifted to the committee's Sinn Féin MLAs.
An Ulster Unionist motion yesterday on Stormont's first 'opposition day' sought backing for resurrecting the finance committee probe from First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.
But a Sinn Féin amendment, which was later voted through with help from the DUP, failed to mention the inquiry specifically and instead voiced support for "all efforts to uncover the truth around the sale of the Project Eagle portfolio".
Speaking in support of the amendment, Sinn Féin MLA John O'Dowd questioned the purpose served by a fresh Stormont investigation.
"Do we want to set up a finance committee inquiry for the sake of setting up a finance committee inquiry which will produce great efforts, I have no doubt, by the committee members and the committee staff, but will it result in those responsible for wrongdoings around Project Eagle being brought to account?" he said.
"I do not believe so."
In the Republic, Sinn Féin has been a vocal supporter of a Commission of Inquiry into the Nama scandal and the party press office was last night insisting it supported "all efforts to uncover the truth around the sale of the Project Eagle".
A spokesman said: "Sinn Féin supports any inquiry into the sale of Nama's northern portfolio, including an inquiry by the finance committee, but primacy must rest with the criminal investigations which is the only way to bring those involved in wrongdoing to account."
The DUP's Emma Little-Pengelly, chair of the new finance committee, yesterday confirmed reports in The Irish News on Saturday which revealed that the NCA had advised MLAs to proceed cautiously in its inquiry, if at all, for fear of jeopardising the criminal investigation.
But UUP leader Mike Nesbitt claimed the DUP and Sinn Féin had agreed a "no-first strike pact" which indicated a softening of the latter's stance on a Stormont probe.
"The investigation underway by the National Crime Agency is one we support, but it is just that, a police investigation, not a convenient excuse for politicians to ignore the scandal," Mr Nesbitt said.
SDLP justice spokesman Alex Attwood claimed the line between the NCA's criminal inquiry and a separate investigation by MLAs could be "properly and successfully navigated".
"Why would Sinn Féin give the DUP a soft landing and avoid an assembly statement? It seems that non-aggression between the DUP and Sinn Féin now extends to Nama," Mr Attwood said.
Alliance's Stephen Farry also said he was disappointed that the assembly failed to unite around a Project Eagle probe.
"Full respect must be given to the integrity of the various ongoing criminal investigations currently across a number of jurisdictions," he said.
"However, this is a much broader issue than just criminal accountability – the crucial issues of transparency and standards of governance are at the forefront of regaining public confidence in politics."