National Broadband Plan hangs in the balance

Ex-minister Naughten reckless in agreeing to unrecorded private meetings with bidder

Denis Naughten resigns as Minister for Communication on Thursday. There are rules and protocols around procurement. They strictly forbid direct canvassing of government and government ministers during a tender.

Denis Naughten resigns as Minister for Communication on Thursday. There are rules and protocols around procurement. They strictly forbid direct canvassing of government and government ministers during a tender.

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Have Denis Naughten’s meetings with the lead bidder during the procurement process for the Government National Broadband Plan compromised the whole enterprise. That’s the single biggest question now hanging over the project. If not, how come? And, if so, does it set the clock back to zero on what has already been a stop-start exercise, or does the Government have a workable plan B?

The ambition to lift rural Ireland out of the broadband blackspot that has been blamed for hindering regional growth has been beset with problems and delays since it was first announced back in 2012. It has now outlived three ministers and has been largely abandoned by the telecoms industry here.

From the outset, the Department of Communications took an incredibly legalistic approach to the tender, tying bidders up in mountains of paperwork. Eir spent more than €7 million and had up to 20 staff working on its bid before dropping out earlier this year.

The cautious approach was justified on the grounds that the Government was desperate to avoid a “Moriarty Two” scenario with the award of another large telecoms asset becoming mired in legal dispute and political controversy.

This is what makes Mr Naughten’s meetings with David McCourt, chairman and founder of US investment firm Granahan McCourt and one of the main bidders for the contract, so hard to fathom.

Lapse of judgment

When it emerged that he met McCourt in New York in July, while attending the United Nations summit, it seemed like a lapse of judgment, perhaps even an understandable one. There was, after all, only one bidder left in the race by that time and Mr Naughten was desperate to get the long-standing project across the line.

Even “facilitating” Mr McCourt and his family having lunch in the Dáil is a fairly standard courtesy afforded by most politicians.

But attending four private dinners with a man bidding for the biggest State contract ever to be awarded, worth more than €500 million, in his own house must go down as entirely reckless.

There are rules and protocols around procurement. They strictly forbid direct canvassing of government and government ministers during a tender.

Legal challenge

And now we find that one of the bidders is hosting the minister in charge, the decision-maker, at private dinners with no officials present and no minutes taken.

Could this leave the process open to legal challenge, the very scenario the department so desperately wishes to avoid?

And so six years on from when it was first announced by then minister for communications Pat Rabbitte, the State-subsidised scheme to bring high-speed broadband to more than 540,000 rural homes and businesses seems to be hanging by a thread.

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