I owe Jamie Bryson an apology

Alex Kane

Alex Kane

Alex Kane is an Irish News columnist and political commentator and a former director of communications for the Ulster Unionist Party.

Loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson. Picture by Niall Carson, Press Association
Loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson. Picture by Niall Carson, Press Association Loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson. Picture by Niall Carson, Press Association

WHEN Jamie Bryson first mentioned Nama I concluded that he was mad: literally mad. Like many others I assumed that he was just tossing names into the arena, reasonably confident that his supposedly straitened circumstances would prevent anyone from dragging him into legal action for slander or libel. And since most of what he was saying seemed to be of the nod and wink variety it was going to be very hard for anyone named to pin him down when it came to specific allegations.

Also, like many others, I further assumed that the whole thing would blow over in a few weeks. Even the people who have no love for Peter Robinson and the DUP—and that seemed to be the audience he was playing to—would surely drift off if he wasn’t able to make any of what he was saying stand up? “If you’re so certain about all of this, then why don’t you make specific charges and provide the hard evidence,” tended to be the response of many people on his social media accounts.

The other issue that concerned me was that the mainstream media was steering clear of the story. They, of course, are much easier to sue; and much easier to shut down (in the sense of being able to put a brake on coverage) too, once any legal action has begun. But still: surely any whistleblower at the heart of Nama would prefer to take the story to a major media outlet than to someone who was regarded as a publicity-hungry joke?

But here we are, two BBC Spotlights and massive Irish News coverage later, and much of Bryson’s stuff is standing up. What he has been saying for over a year has turned out to be largely accurate. The information he has been seeping out through his blog has turned out to be political dynamite—the sort of dynamite that may still lead to the very top of the political food chain here. Put bluntly, he has delivered the sort of scoop which most journalists would give their eye teeth for. I wonder, by the way, what was agreed for his side of the arrangement?

Part of the credit must go to the person/people who decided to use him as the original conduit, because they were savvy enough to realise that a mainstream route would probably—and very quickly—have become bogged down in legal obstacles and hurdles. They also realised that the seeming reluctance of some people to initiate legal action against him suggested that there might, in fact, be a great deal more to the story. These people seemed keener to ridicule and belittle him than to unpick and deconstruct his claims: and that approach tended to further suggest that they hoped the whole thing would just go away if they discredited the primary source. And, as political press offices and spin-doctors know, discrediting the source is a standard defence tactic when you have a problem.

So, what happens now? At least one key player in the story has a very considerable problem with the sheer scale of the evidence which has amassed around him. But he is clearly not the main target. This story has never been about that individual. This story has always been about politicians rather than money men or corporate fixers or bankers or accountants or lawyers. It’s the political dimension which attracts the interest. It’s political figures who are still being chased.

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt summed it up: “The First Minister urgently needs to make clear that the type of behaviour alleged to have taken place is wholly unacceptable and has no place in Northern Ireland. She was DETI Minister for a long time and she should be clear what she knew, the nature of her relationship with Frank Cushnahan, if any, and whether Sammy Wilson MP retains her confidence.” He could have added that Cushnahan’s suggestion that he had some sort of influence over Peter Robinson and Sammy Wilson was also quite disturbing.

Anyway, my gut instinct is that the Nama story will run and run and keep on running until someone dumps crushing evidence on the doorstep of a key political player. Key figures will be hauled back before the assembly’s finance committee to give further evidence and it’s likely that a proper public inquiry will be launched to investigate the cross-border, US aspects as well. This story is not going away.

A couple of years ago I wrote a column here in which I said that Jamie Bryson, at that point known mostly as a flag-protesting irritant, would be remembered only as the answer to a “Trivial Pursuit question about political oddities.” Apologies Jamie, I did you a disservice. Bank it, by the way, I rarely apologise. There’s still a bit of the oddity about you, but you’ll now be remembered as a key figure in one of the most interesting political stories of this period.

Fair play to you.