Denis Naughten’s resignation creates real wobble in the Coalition

Analysis: Political drama could pull broadband project off the rails

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar asked Denis Naughten to resign as minister for communications after he revealed he had four private dinners with the key bidder in the broadband procurement process. Video: Oireachtas TV

 

In the way that car crashes do, it caught everyone by surprise.

A smattering of TDs had gathered in the Dáil chamber at 3pm to hear the statement by Denis Naughten on his contacts with David McCourt, head of the last remaining consortium bidding for the mammoth contract to supply broadband to half a million rural homes.

On the political Beaufort scale the rumbling controversy was a six or a seven – somewhere between a strong breeze and near gale. By the time the wind began to get up outside the Dáil, it had escalated to a political storm inside.

In a moment of authentic political drama, Naughten revealed that the Taoiseach had asked him to “reflect on my position”.

“It is clear to me, therefore, that the Taoiseach does not have confidence in me,” he said, going on to reflect bitterly that he believed the Taoiseach’s decision was more about opinion polls and optics.

It was clear, then, what had to come. “For my family, for my constituents and, more importantly, for the 1.1 million people who are waiting for this essential service, a vital service for ordinary people in rural Ireland, I have given An Taoiseach my resignation.”

Naughten rose from his frontbench seat – perhaps the last time he will ever occupy it – and quickly left the chamber, apparently upset. There was a shocked silence in the chamber. We hadn’t even asked him to resign, reflected dumbstruck deputies. They would have if they knew what was coming.

Second act

Varadkar’s subsequent statement in the Dáil – delivered after an hour-long hiatus filled with nervy speculation that a general election was imminent – was the second act of the drama.

The Taoiseach told an almost disbelieving Dáil that Naughten had met him on Wednesday night to account for his contacts with McCourt. Varadkar was initially satisfied with Naughten’s explanations, until his minister later rang him, near midnight, to say he had just remembered that he had attended a private dinner at McCourt’s home last year. He suggested that he could be reshuffled to another department, or the responsibility for the broadband plan could be given to another minister. Varadkar, clearly horrified, said he would reflect on it.

When the two men met on Thursday morning, Naughten dropped another bombshell. He had attended “at least three other private dinners with Mr McCourt. There were no officials present and there are no minutes.” From then on, Naughten’s ministerial career was over.

Clearly upset, Naughten insisted that he had told the Taoiseach everything about his contacts with McCourt in a tea-time telephone conversation on Wednesday night. The Taoiseach says otherwise.

Instead, Varadkar insists that he was given one piece of information then, another in a telephone a few minutes before midnight and learned about the full scale of Naughten’s contacts with the businessman only on Thursday morning.

Astonishing behaviour

Regardless of whose memory is right, Naughten did not dispute the central element: he had engaged in protracted personal contact with someone who is bidding for one of the most valuable contracts in the history of the State. It is simply astonishing behaviour.

The controversy caused a real wobble in the Coalition Government yesterday. And it is not over.

Naughten made clear last night in an interview on RTÉ that he feels wronged by the outcome. He will consider his support for the Government, he said, on a “case-by-case basis”. Given that the Dáil will have to vote to approve the appointment of his successor, Varadkar plainly cannot count on his vote.

The minority Coalition now has the support of 49 Fine Gael TDs, plus four Independent Alliance ministers, plus Katherine Zappone – 54 nailed down votes. A bare majority, when Fianna Fáil abstains, is 57 votes. But several independents habitually vote with the Government, and several more vote only intermittently. In fact, the Government is usually fairly comfortable on crucial votes – though it’s a pretty shaky way to run a parliamentary railroad.

Awaiting broadband

More significant for the million people still awaiting reliable internet connections in rural areas, the whole broadband procurement process is now in deep, deep trouble. There was already considerable alarm among Ministers about the rising costs of the project; now they’re worried that its integrity is under question, too. Some senior Government figures were privately saying last night that the process was fatally undermined.

If the broadband project comes off the rails in the coming weeks, it will be a huge political blow to the Coalition. As its parliamentary numbers slip away and the confidence and supply agreement reaches the end of its life, the Government’s future becomes ever more uncertain.