Pressure on Varadkar to offer view on Naughten’s explanation
Minister says he ‘acted to the letter of the law’ in his conversation with lobbyist Eoghan Ó Neachtain
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is expected to be pressed on the Minister for Communications’s statement that he only offered a “personal view” to a lobbyist for Independent News and Media on a proposed takeover.
In a statement to the Dáil on Wednesday, Denis Naughten said he “acted to the letter of the law” when he had a conversation with lobbyist Eoghan Ó Neachtain in November 2016 about the mooted takeover of Celtic Media by INM. He also insisted he had “no inside information” to give.
The Irish Times reported on Wednesday details from court documents filed by the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement as part of a bid to have High Court inspectors appointed to INM. These referred to the Ó Neachtain conversation with Mr Naughten over whether the takeover would likely be referred to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI). This was allegedly relayed to Denis O’Brien, INM’s largest shareholder, two months before a decision was made.
Mr Naughten said he “expressed a purely personal view that the likely course of action” would be a referral to the BAI.
The proposed takeover of Celtic Media was abandoned last July.
Fianna Fáil – which underpins the Fine Gael-Independent minority administration – is unlikely, as of now, to seek Mr Naughten’s resignation. Party sources said there was reluctance among Fianna Fáil TDs to push for Mr Naughten’s resignation unless further damaging details emerged.
Fianna Fáil communications spokesman Timmy Dooley said the party “will not rush to judgment” on the issue.
“But the Minister gave a nod to INM, and in this instance a nod is as good as a wink. We need to hear from the Taoiseach on this. The Taoiseach needs to explain if he thinks it is acceptable for a Minister to personally indicate how he might later act as Minister.”
A Sinn Féin spokesman also said the party would ask Mr Varadkar if he was happy with Mr Naughten offering a personal view on a matter under his remit to a lobbyist working for an interested party.
However, a spokesman for Mr Varadkar said the Taoiseach was satisfied with the explanation given by Mr Naughten on Wednesday.
Last night at a Fine Gael event in Dublin the Taoiseach said Mr Naughten’s explanation was “clear”.
During a question-and-answer session in the Dáil after he made his statement, Mr Naughten said no official record of the phone call with Mr Ó Neachtain had been kept.
He also said he spoke to former INM chairman Leslie Buckley at a company event in May 2017, but they had only engaged in small talk.