Government had ‘open door’ policy towards NBP bidder, TD claims

Records reveal Noonan met representatives of telco Enet before firm’s contract renewed

Former minister for finance Micheal Noonan:  Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe has confirmed  Mr Noonan and several department officials met Enet representatives in December 2016. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Former minister for finance Micheal Noonan: Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe has confirmed Mr Noonan and several department officials met Enet representatives in December 2016. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

Former minister for finance Michael Noonan met representatives of Irish telco Enet including its public relations adviser Eoin Ó Neachtain just three months before the company’s contract to operate the State-owned Municipal Area Networks (MANs) was renewed without a tender process.

In a written reply to a parliamentary question asked by Social Democrats TD Catherine Murphy, Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe confirmed that Mr Noonan and several department officials met Enet representatives in December 2016.

This was three months before the Government extended Enet’s contract to run the MANs, a series of telecommunications networks built around 94 towns, to 2030 without a tender and two years before the contract was due to expire. The contract is said to be worth up to €20 million annually to the Limerick-based firm.

The meeting was at the request of Enet as a business based in Mr Noonan’s constituency and was attended by Enet’s then chief executive Conal Henry, its head of communications Niall Beirne and Mr Ó Neachtain, a former government press secretary, but now working for public relations firm Heneghan PR.

At the time Enet was also bidding for the Government’s National Broadband Plan (NBP), a tender which it went on to win. Its bid has, however, been taken over by US investment firm Granahan McCourt.

Tender process

Former minister for communications Denis Naughten was forced to resign last week over his contacts with David McCourt, the founder and chairman of Granahan McCourt, during the NBP tender process.

Mr Naughten has admitted to having several meetings with Mr McCourt, including a number of private dinners, at least one of which was at Mr McCourt’s Co Clare home, during the process.

His meetings with Mr McCourt have thrown another spanner in the works of the Government’s broadband plan, which has been promised since 2012, and aims to deliver high-speed broadband to 540,000 homes and businesses in rural Ireland.

Ms Murphy said there were now serious questions over how and why that decision was taken to extend the MANs contract “suddenly and without tender given”.

“In a series of parliamentary replies to me, including a schedule showing all meetings between either David McCourt, representatives of Enet, and the Department of Communications, it is clear that there was almost an open-door policy in Government Buildings for Enet and/or David McCourt,” she said.

Interest expressed

Ms Murphy also noted that UK telecoms firm BT had written to the Department of Communications expressing an interest in bidding for the MANs should the contracts come up for renewal.

“I have said previously that we need to understand the rationale for the former minister’s decision to extend the MANs contract – which is essentially the precursor to the NBP process – [and] when he did, because soon after that contract extension the State bought into Enet at a cost of approximately €200 million and it is important to understand if that extension materially affected the price paid by the State for its 78 per cent purchase of Enet in 2017,” she said.

The State-backed Irish Infrastructure Fund (IIF) acquired 78 per cent of Enet in August 2017 in a deal that valued the company at up to €200 million. Earlier this month IIF acquired the remaining stake from Granahan McCourt, Enet’s former backer.