I Claudius redux has been running on the Stormont big screen for the past week. Having first gutted Caesar with a dagger provided by leading DUP senators, Jaminicus has now stabbed Davidicus who helped guide the knife between the shoulder blades of Caesar in the first place.
Meanwhile the gods of opportunity are stirring up the storm clouds above the head of Máirtínicus in the hope that he may yet fall on his own sword. Drama and Dangerous Liaisons by the plenty as the career home on the hill moves closer to the top of the country’s hundred worst ideas list.
NAMA, the “bad bank” creation of the Dublin government in 2009 for the purpose of buying up toxic loans has certainly been the cause of even more poison pouring into the polluted well of Northern politics. Its Project Eagle sale might better have been named Project Vulture. The creature that in 2014 swooped on a meaty financial carcass, paying the price only for the bones, was much less noble in the public imagination than an eagle. “Nama sold 850 property loans which were once valued at €6.3bn for a knockdown price of €1.6bn to US vulture fund Cerberus.”
It seemed such a blatant act of auctioning off the family silver at seriously deflated prices in return for a quick buck, that the political North - despite its penchant for censorship coupled with an industrious libel tourism sector - could not quell the ensuing disquiet. The door was now open for the political profiteers to make capital from the financial profiteers.
The subsequent Stormont finance committee inquiry into Project Eagle chaired by Sinn Fein’s Daithi McKay, in particular the evidence of loyalist Jamie Bryson, might have looked like pantomime to “the accused” (he whose name must, for maximum effect, not be revealed until the curtain is about to drop) but eight weeks later the accused became the departed, standing down as the North’s First Minister and leader of the DUP.
To many observers Peter Robinson jumped before he was pushed along the same Via Dolorosa so gracelessly but appropriately trod by his wife some years earlier. Even if on both occasions the passports, like much else in their lives, were dicky, few were going to scrutinise them at the risk of disrupting the travellers’ odyssey to obscurity. There were not many raised eyebrows, scrutineering being neither a valued or popular profession in the North.
Bryson’s evidence that Robinson and four others stood to benefit financially from the sale to the collective tune of around £7 million caused a seismic rumble. TD Mick Wallace had earlier jump started the public’s attention with his claim that an equivalent sum lodged in a bank account in the Isle of Man was "reportedly earmarked" for an unnamed politician.
Now the manure has hit the fan with disclosures that Jamie Bryson was part of a cross community conspiracy to nail Peter Robinson. Bryson’s co-conspirator was none other than the chair of the investigating committee, Daithi McKay: the judge coaching the witness for the prosecution. Anybody other than a Sinn Fein official involved in such a manoeuvre with Jamie Bryson would immediately be accused by Connolly House of collusion.
Sinn Fein, stung by the disclosures, immediately forced McKay to resign his position as MLA for North Antrim and suspended him from the party. It claimed McKay accepted he had made an error of judgment in what was a solo run. Martin McGuinness in pushing the tired old line that the party leadership had no knowledge of any of it will have difficulty getting that assertion across the line. It is the sort of defence which because it has been proffered so often in the past to deflect criticism and facilitate cover up, now has little credence. Sinn Fein will find it hard to persuade people that Mike Nesbitt got it wrong in his terse summary:
Martin McGuinness’s statement lacks the ring of truth. If one looks at the history of Sinn Fein statements, they always try to mask the truth – the Colombia three, the Florida gunrunning and the murder of Paul Quinn to name but three.
Former Sinn Fein MLA, Davy Hyland summed up matters in a way people familiar with the workings of the party would immediately recognise as valid:
I don’t think the full story has come out yet. No doubt Sinn Fein would like to brush the whole thing under the carpet. However it is unlikely that Daithi McKay and his friend [Thomas O’Hara] were in this on their own and not sanctioned by someone higher up in the leadership. The nature of Sinn Fein is that you never go on solo runs. It is made quite clear that everything must go through central command. Has it changed much in the nine years since I left? I doubt it.
Would a middle ranking party official really risk bringing down First Minister Peter Robinson behind the back of his party by entering into a conspiracy with a trenchant loyalist activist, having left the loyalist in possession of the smoking gun? Unlikely. McKay took the risk because he knew he could, because he had approval from on high.
Just how high is a task the SDLP leader Colum Eastwood is determined to find out: "Sinn Féin don't do lone wolves, they do scapegoats.” He has focussed on Sinn Fein's Finance Minister as the person possibly being protected by the throwing of McKay under the bus.
Did the Finance Minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir receive any communication from either the Committee Chair Daithí McKay or Thomas O'Hara to ensure that Jamie Bryson's evidence was heard in open session? Was the current Finance Minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir prepped in advance of Jamie Bryson's choreographed appearance at the Stormont Finance Committee? Did Finance Minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir receive any communication from McKay or O'Hara with regard to the appearance of any other witnesses?
The UUP has adopted a similar stance and is calling for O'Muilleoir to stand down until the matter has been fully settled. With calls for a police investigation, from which the unearthing of Sinn Fein internal communications is possible, the "et tu Máirtínicus" spectre will stalk Stormont's corridors for some time to come.