Naughten’s exit throws broadband plan into doubt
Independent auditor will assess if process has been compromised, says Taoiseach
The shock resignation of the Minister for Communications, Denis Naughten, on Thursday has further eroded the Government’s working majority in the Dáil and thrown the future of the National Broadband Plan into doubt.
On Thursday night senior Government sources privately questioned the future of efforts to bring high-speed broadband to half a million rural homes after it emerged that Mr Naughten had attended four private dinners with the head of the remaining bidder for the contract, David McCourt.
Senior ministers and officials had been getting increasingly worried in recent times about the costs of National Broadband Plan, one of the Government’s key pledges, believing that it would far exceed its €500m budget.
Now, however, The Irish Times understands that they fear Mr Naughten’s contacts with Mr McCourt – at which events the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, said there were no officials present and no minutes taken – has undermined the entire tender.
Speaking in the Dáil after Mr Naughten’s resignation, Mr Varadkar said that an independent auditor would now “assess whether or not the process has been compromised”.
Mr Naughten announced his resignation to a shocked Dáil on Thursday afternoon before exiting the chamber abruptly, leaving Opposition TDs baffled, saying that they had not called upon him to resign.
An hour later, however, Mr Varadkar told TDs that Mr Naughten had told him late on Wednesday night about one dinner with Mr McCourt, and on Thursday morning about “at least” a further three dinners.
Mr Varadkar accepted there were no doubts over Mr Naughten’s integrity but that the optics were bad
Sources close to Mr Naughten insist he told the Taoiseach of all the meetings on Tuesday, adding that the dinner at Mr McCourt’s Co Clare home was organised by local TD, Fine Gael Minister of State Pat Breen.
However, Government Buildings last night said it “absolutely” stood by Mr Varadkar’s account in the Dáil. The “very difficult” meeting between Mr Varadkar, Mr Naughten and their advisors took place between 11.30am and just after noon.
Sources said Mr Varadkar asked Mr Naughten to reflect on his position over the next hour, and accepted there were no doubts over Mr Naughten’s integrity but that the optics were bad. Mr Naughten questioned what purpose his resignation would serve.
Mr Naughten did not respond to Mr Varadkar after that, and the first the Taoiseach knew that he was definitely resigning came when the Roscommon TD made his statement to the Dáil.
Mr Naughten on Thursday night said that he would decide whether to support the Government in the Dáil “on a case-by-case basis”.
His departure from Government reduces the number of votes the Taoiseach can command in the Dáil to 54 – three short of a bare majority when Fianna Fáil abstains. However, several Independents routinely support the Government, and its majority in the House has been comfortable on most important votes.
On Thursday night the junior Minister at Mr Naughten’s former department, Pat Breen, issued a statement saying that he had met Mr McCourt several times on a personal basis, but that he had no responsibility for the broadband process. He confirmed that he had invited Mr Naughten to a dinner at Mr McCourt’s home in Co Clare, but said the broadband process was not discussed.