Page last updated at 12:09 GMT, Monday, 14 September 2009 13:09 UK

No NI firesale over toxic bank

The property slump left many buildings unfinished

Finance Minister Sammy Wilson has quashed fears that the Republic of Ireland's so-called "bad bank" could lead to a property price slump in Northern Ireland.

Legislation will be debated in the Dail on Wednesday on the creation of the National Asset Management Agency (Nama) to deal with bad debts and allow banks to start lending again.

Reports had suggested that as much as 20bn euros of assets to be managed by Nama were in Northern Ireland.

However, Mr Wilson said the Republic's minister of finance, Brian Lenihan, had told him this figure was substantially lower at 4.8bn euros.

Concern had been expressed that millions of pounds worth of property in Northern Ireland bought with loans from banks in the Republic could be sold off quickly, causing commercial property prices to plummet.

Mr Wilson told BBC News Online that Mr Lenihan had assured him there would be "no firesale" of southern-backed property in Northern Ireland.

The agency will take on responsibility for 90bn euros of property and development loans from Irish banks
The plan involves the government buying property loans at a discount, then managing them in such a way that the Irish taxpayer will at least break even on the deal over about 10 years
In return the banks are expected to start lending again with the money the government has paid them for the loans
It will take on both 'good, or performing loans' and 'bad, or non-performing loans'

He said Mr Lenihan had agreed to the formation of an advisory board to advise Nama on how to handle assets based in Northern Ireland.

During the years of the Celtic Tiger when the Republic's economy was forging ahead, new office blocks and apartment buildings sprang up at bewildering speed.

Irish developers quickly began looking further afield for expansion opportunities during an era of easy credit and spiralling property prices.

By the mid-2000s, prices in Northern Ireland were also climbing to record levels, inevitably attracting many investors backed by loans from the Republic's banks.

The now-nationalised Anglo Irish Bank has an office in Belfast which loaned at least £1.5bn to Northern Ireland-based developers.

When the market came to a shuddering halt last year, it left many developers unable to make their repayments along with a trail of bad debt which left the banking industry in crisis.

Ahead of Wednesday's debate, it is believed a wait-and-see approach to Nama is being adopted by local banks, some of which operate on both sides of the border.

I feel a lot better about things than I did at the start of last week
Sammy Wilson
NI finance minister

Mr Wilson said most of the 4.8bn euros in Republic-backed assets was land which had not yet been built upon.

"Some is in the form of developments that are not completed, for example an office block that is half built," he said.

"Nama is taking those into the ownership because it might be in a better position to get the development completed and sold on, rather than be left half-finished."

'Stabilising the market'

Before meeting his counterpart in the Republic last week, Mr Wilson said he feared that that "if Nama wanted to realise money quickly from the assets in the form of a firesale, the political implications might be less in Northern Ireland than in the Republic".

"The minister gave an absolute assurance that it was not in the interests of the Republic's government to have a firesale of any sort because all that would do is further deflate the prices of the assets they are holding," he said.

"The whole point of this is to stabilise the banking market at the least cost to the taxpayer in the Republic.

"Once the legislation goes through, and the minister is fairly confident that it will, we will meet again to hammer out those details.

"I feel a lot better about things than I did at the start of last week."

He added: "By and large, we've established what the exposure is, established how Nama will deal with the assets and reached agreement on having input into the decisions that Nama will make about assets held here in Northern Ireland."

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