Martin Galvin (MG) interviews author and political analyst Anthony McIntyre (AM) via telephone from Ireland about the breaking National Asset Management Agency ‘coaching scandal’ which mainly involves now former Sinn Féin MLA Daithí McKay and Loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson.
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MG: With us on the line we have Dr. Anthony McIntyre. He is the author of Good Friday: The Death of Irish Republicanism, one of the best books on Irish Republicanism that there is. He’s also the person, the moderator, of The Pensive Quill. It is the website and we want to thank you for putting up a lot of our interviews that have been transcribed from WBAI Radio Free Éireann. They get widely read. That is one of the best sites that you see – there’s a lot of different groups putting material on – will comment, read material. If you want to have a debate in terms of the North of Ireland that website, The Pensive Quill, is the place to go. Anthony, welcome back to Radio Free Éireann.
AM: Thank you very much, Martin.
MG: Anthony, I quoted Alex Kane before – somebody I wouldn’t usually. He’s a Unionist commentator and writer for papers like the Belfast Telegraph, he sometimes writes for the Irish News or sometimes for The News Letter, the paper which had so much to say against Gerry McGeough last week but he made a comment. He said: Just when you think Irish politics in The North cannot get any stranger – where you think nothing else can surprise you there’s always a group of people who will prove you wrong.
And he was talking about the fact that there was a Stormont committee hearing – people in the United States would be familiar with a few years ago, 2008-2009 it was a tremendous – mortgages went bad, banks threatened to fall – the government in the United States had to bail out banks. And in Ireland, particularly in the Twenty-Six Counties, the Irish government, they held a tremendous portfolio. They had to sell off property. They established the National Asset Management Association (NAMA) and they sold more than a billion pounds, and that’s English pounds I believe, of property in the Six Counties and then it turned out a few years ago that there were a number of notable politicians, a number of notable attorneys, a number of notable what we’d call ‘fixers’ who may have or were accused of getting payoffs, back enders, huge commissions as part of this sale which seemed to be corrupt. And one of the names in a committee hearing was Peter Robinson, who was then the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) head. And he was named by an individual named Jamie Bryson and it turned out within the past week that he been coached in that testimony by a member of Sinn Féin, Daithí McKay. Could you tell us who Jamie Bryson is and Daithí McKay and why the fact that one of them would be coaching the other against Peter Robinson – why that has caused so much controversy and headlines in the North of Ireland?
AM: Well firstly, Alex Kane is one of the most incisive and insightful political commentators around. I read his piece today and I thought it was on the money. Secondly, Jamie Bryson is a Loyalist who had political ambitions as far back as 2012 -2011 – he ran for Council elections but was resoundingly rejected by the electorate – I think he got a hundred and sixty-odd votes. And he then was thrust into the public spotlight as a result of his central role in the flags campaign which was a Loyalist campaign, often violent and disruptive, against the decisions pertaining to the flags that were agreed in Belfast City Council. And he has become a blogger and a member of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ). He’s very articulate and engages with a wide number of groups. I think people are probably surprised that Jamie Bryson, given his earlier days and his discourse, is able to converse quite intelligently with a wide spectrum of political opinion. And Daithí McKay is a Sinn Féin, was a Sinn Féin MLA. He was a very young Councillor in North Antrim – well-regarded – has been a solid community representative. He has also been sort of one of the voices in Sinn Féin that has tackled corruption in the political system. Back in 2007 he was heavily involved in criticising Seymour Sweeney, who was a DUP member and was awarded a contract by Arlene Foster, who was the DUP Finance Minister. So, I mean, the two of them have form and Jamie Bryson will be probably better known given that he is involved probably in more controversy.
Why was he supporting, why was Daithí McKay coaching…
MG: …Anthony – if I could break in just to explain to Americans: Jamie Bryson was best known for leading what were called the ‘flag protests’ – meaning that when there was a vote in Belfast City Council not to fly the Union Jack, the British flag, except on designated days – there was a compromise made. And that was so shocking to him that he and others protested every day, they wanted to march through the city centre, he was actually charged with that, he hid out for a while, he was brought in before a court and he would be viewed as somebody who would be shocked or angry – described himself as a hardline Unionist, viewed as somebody who was angry if you couldn’t fly the British flag every day, and of course you can never fly the Irish flag over Belfast City Hall or any public buildings in The North. And then he, it appears, is coached. There is correspondence now that’s been leaked. And he was given help in an appearance before that committee that Daithí McKay would lead and how did these two people with such different backgrounds get involved together? How would Daithí McKay feel confident – Jamie Bryson feel confident – having correspondence – Twitter through each other – and why would Daithí McKay be using Jamie Bryson as an ally to attack Peter Robinson?
AM: Well the notion that people of what seemingly, on the surface, are diametrically opposed political perspectives don’t sort of tick tack and don’t have back-channels is really far removed from the political reality in The North. I don’t know the specifics or the mechanics of how Daithí McKay came in touch with Jamie Bryson but it would be no hard matter to do. But back in 2015 when Jamie Bryson was giving his evidence around that time in this inquiry Sinn Féin were in the middle – there had been a sort of serious tension between Sinn Féin and the DUP – and Alex Kane actually once described the two parties as being: even though they’re in government they actually hated each other and I think that was a fairly sort of accurate description. And Sinn Féin felt that Peter Robinson was causing a lot of friction and was putting them under pressure and simply making it hard for Sinn Féin to deal with. So they had an interest in curbing Robinson and even bringing him down and seeing him replaced. And we have seen him replaced. (And incidentally, he was replaced. He stood down eight weeks after Jamie Bryson made the allegations.)
But Jamie Bryson himself would have been acting, in my view, on information provided to him not by Daithí McKay – Daithí McKay coached him as to how to best present his information so that as much of it as possible could be brought before the committee investigating this matter rather than Bryson sort of making a mistake, a procedural mistake, which would have allowed the DUP to effectively silence him and halt the proceedings. So Daithí McKay was advising him how best to present the evidence that he had. But crucially, the evidence that he did have did not come from Sinn Féin – it came from senior DUP politicians who had some sort of animosity towards Peter Robinson and they wanted to give him the heave-ho. And I would feel now that Jamie Bryson has fired a shot over their bows and they must be very, very nervous as to what he might leak next because they spoke to him and he now has them by the short and curlies, to borrow a phrase. Sinn Féin are probably under a lot of pressure, too, because while they have said that Daithí has went on a solo run and that Daithí sort of has accepted that he made a bad mistake I don’t believe that’s the way things happen within Sinn Féin. It was never my experience and I notice that the former (Sinn Féin) MLA, Davy Hyland, has said that Sinn Féin don’t do solo runs. Now there seems to be universal political agreement outside of Sinn Féin that this was not a solo run and that people in their senior leadership had knowledge of this – which people they’re talking about we don’t know – Martin McGuinness has denied it. Those denials Martin McGuinness was saying will be hard to get across the line because in all the controversies and scandals that have beset Sinn Féin over the years Martin has denied virtually everything and later it’s come back to bite him on the rear end.
And I am of the view, without having any evidence, I am of the view that the person most likely, at senior level in Sinn Féin, to be in danger from this bruhaha would be Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, the Finance Minister, because Máirtín’s name was actually mentioned in all the correspondence between Daithí McKay, who was using Thomas O’Hara’s Twitter account, but most people feel that Daithí was actually using that account to convey the message to Bryson. And Jamie Bryson himself has said that he was never in touch with Thomas O’Hara – he was always in touch with Daithí McKay. Now the problem here is that because Máirtín Ó Muilleoir has been mentioned we have Mike Nesbitt of the Ulster Unionists and Colum Eastwood of the SDLP now calling for Máirtín to explain himself or to stand down until such time as a full investigation has taken place. Máirtín Ó Muilleoir may well be very innocent in all of this but it seems that Sinn Féin are frightened and are circling the wagons around him to borrow a phrase from Suzanne Breen’s excellent article in the Belfast Telegraph on the matter and the other people, the critics of Sinn Féin, the likes of the competitors of Sinn Féin, certainly the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists, are going for the jugular on this matter.
MG: Well there has been calls for a police investigation is that… as well as political calls for some sort of public inquiry, that sort of thing. Is there any possibility…
AM: …Maurice Morrow of the DUP has called – he has put in a complaint to some sort of adjudicator who investigates these complaints within the Assembly. Now others are calling, the DUP as well, are calling for a full-scale police investigation. That could cause a lot of problems for Sinn Féin because what would happen then is the police would have power of discovery and they would go after email trails and any sort of correspondence that leaves a paper trail and that could start to flush out other Sinn Féin figures who may have been involved in this thing and also it would be an embarrassment to the DUP because the DUP, key figures within the DUP, in my view, have been responsible, at least that’s my understanding, have been responsible for providing Jamie Bryson with this information.
MG: Well you also have – there’ll be cross-community support for this. The SDLP, Colum Eastwood, has written a very strong piece in the Irish News, an Op-Ed, condemning what happened – he is the head of the SDLP. You’ll have Mike Nesbitt doing the same thing. Sinn Féin would be in a very difficult position to block anything they’ve said; it won’t go any further, they expect to be vindicated. How would they prevent some sort of inquiry going on through Stormont to see how far up the chain this may have gone – whether it was Daithí McKay’s idea or whether it went much further as Davy Hyland and others have suggested?
AM: Well Sinn Féin would obviously like to block a full-scale inquiry if they have anything to hide. If they’ve nothing to hide they won’t worry too much about the inquiry. But few people believe that they have nothing to hide. The problem is that for an inquiry to take place the person, the adjudicator, the commissioner with whom a complaint has been registered through Maurice Morrow. He would have to carry out an investigation. Now Alex Kane again suggests that what’s going to happen here is that a blind eye will be turned – that the political project, the Assembly – it’s too big to fail so they’ll find some way of glossing over it and diffusing it and Daithí McKay, I mean who, as Suzanne Breen rightly said isn’t the biggest political rogue in all of this, and it’s amasing that it’s headed for this road as the result of widespread corruption. I think Suzanne’s right – that it’s not over yet and there’s more to come on this issue and you know a lot of the cards are in Jamie Bryson’s hands at the moment. Particularly in relation to the DUP, see. But Bryson has also alluded to what he says is a fact that the people higher up than Daithí, to use Jamie’s phrase, were actually involved in this and knew about the communication between himself – Jamie Bryson and Daithí McKay.
MG: Alright Anthony, our producer is signaling me that we’re just about out of time. This is a story that’s going to continue. We’re waiting to see what people like Arlene Foster, who is the present head of the DUP, says about this effort, this cooperative effort, to try and go after her predecessor with the DUP, Peter Robinson. We want to thank you for making some sense of that for our audience today and this, as you say, is a story that’s going to continue to go. (ends time stamp ~ 54:20)