TAOISEACH Enda Kenny has this week defended Finance Minister Michael Noonan over his handling of the Siteserv controversy.
In a testing week for the Limerick minister, opposition deputies accused him of withholding information from TDs in parliamentary replies on the sale of the company to Denis O’Brien’s Millington. The opposition has also criticised the review of the deal announced by Minister Noonan.
It was only when heavily redacted documents were released under the Freedom of Information Act to Independent TD Catherine Murphy that the full scale of tensions between state-owned IBRC - which as Anglo-Irish Bank had loaned Siteserv €150 million - and the Department of Finance over the sale were laid bare.
Socialist TD Paul Murphy went so far as to suggest Minister Noonan had misled the Dail - an allegation he was ordered to withdraw - by not fully disclosing tensions between his officials and IBRC over the handing of the Siteserv sale and other transactions. The information, Deputy Murphy said, had to “be dragged out of the minister”.
Mr Kenny said Deputy Murphy’s suggestion Minister Noonan should resign over the affair were “hardly worthy of an answer”.
Minister Noonan “among his peers at European level, was deemed to be the outstanding minister for finance and I have absolute confidence in him”, the Taoiseach said.
Mr Kenny also ruled out an independent commission of inquiry that has been demanded by Fianna Fail’s Deputy Niall Collins and others, claiming that if he did so he would be accused of “kicking the matter into touch”.
Controversy has erupted over the write-off of €105 million in debt owed by Siteserv to state-owned IBRC (formerly Anglo-Irish Bank); the payout of €5 million to Siteserv shareholders to get the deal through; a huge increase in share activity prior to the “confidential” sale; claims other companies had bid more money than Denis O’Brien and the fact that a Siteserv subsidiary subsequently won a government contract to install water meters in parts of the country.
Minister Noonan has come under fire for first appointing KPMG - special liquidators to IBRC - to lead the review into the Siteserv sale. After being criticised for appointing a company which could have a conflict of interest, Minister Noonan this week announced that retired High Court judge Iarfhlaith O’Neill would have a supervisory role in the review process.
Speaking to reporters in Limerick, Minister Noonan agreed KPMG may have to be “kept at arm’s length” should any such conflicts arise.
He indicated that Ireland had so few top legal and accountancy firms that it was natural that potential conflicts would occur.
“If you look at Siteserv, KPMG had an involvement. Arthur Cox, one of the biggest legal firms in Dublin ,were the legal advisors to both sides with different groups within the company advising different sides. Davy’s were advisors as well. PWC were advisors to another group.
“I want a review of over 30 transactions and without checking it at all, I know that every serious company in Dublin, whether its accountancy or legal, will run into conflicts of interest on this.
“So what I need is somebody independent in there working with the liquidator to adjudicate on where there’s a conflict of interest so that nobody is reviewing their own case.”
Minister Noonan said there was no need to widen terms of reference beyond IBRC.
“We have seen situations before when it was in the interest of people to widen the terms of references so that the review would go on indefinitely, and we have had the Moriarty Tribunal and other tribunals going on for 12 or 14 years. The issues of concern here arise from IBRC.”
This was in part a response to former IBRC boss Mike Aynsley, who said if the government was serious about reviewing losses shipped by taxpayers in bank debt writedowns, the scope should be extended to Nama and AIB.
Mr Aynsley also acknowledged tensions with the former secretary general of the Department of Finance John Moran, the Mungret native appointed by Michael Noonan in 2012.
“I don’t think it’s a secret that I don’t get on at all well with John. However, my approach was always to comply with requests that served the minister’s (Noonan’s) objectives to wind down the bank to achieve the best recovery levels for the taxpayer,” he told the Sunday Business Post.
Former IBRC chairman Alan Dukes was another to criticise Mr Moran and his officials this week.
Mr Moran hit back at the weekend, stating it was “regrettable and a step back to pre-crisis mindsets among bank management that what seems to have been happening today are personal attacks on civil servants asking the right questions, who were representing after all the new shareholders of those banks - the taxpayers.”