Denis Naughten stays plugged in to his loyal constituents
Locals close ranks around the former minister as he opens heritage trail in Roscommon
Former minister for communications Denis Naughten: While there’s broad sympathy for Mr Naughten in Roscommon, concern remains over the future rollout of broadband in rural areas. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins
It was business as usual for former minister for communications Denis Naughten on Saturday as he launched the first phase of the Portunny Heritage Trail, about 8km from Roscommon town.
Despite the grind of constituency business, there was a certain reassurance for him among his fellow constituents.
“We were a little nervous you wouldn’t make it here today earlier in the week,” said Gerry Hanlon, chairman of the local development association, to which Mr Naughten replied, tongue firmly in cheek, “You weren’t the only one.”
Mr Naughten politely declined an interview, as he had to get to another constituency engagement.
Local people are closing ranks behind the TD, following his resignation as minister over private dinners with the lead bidder for the State’s rural broadband contract.
It’s not the first time either; in the immediate aftermath of the 2011 general election, Mr Naughten voted against the removal of Accident and Emergency services from Roscommon Hospital.
It marked the deputy’s departure from the Fine Gael party and a serious rift with then taoiseach Enda Kenny. In leaving Fine Gael, Naughten severed a lifelong association with the party, which began with his father Liam was first elected to Roscommon County Council in 1974 and later the Dáil and Seanad. In 1996, Liam Naughten died in a road crash and was succeeded by his son.
Universally regarded as an astute and assiduous constituency worker, Naughten commands respect across the political divide.
Case in point
The views of one constituency colleague, Fianna Fáil TD Eugene Murphy, are a case in point: “I’m not impressed by the actions of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in all of this. He could have sought further information on the matter of deputy Naughten’s meetings.
“The matter could have been investigated for a further week and the Taoiseach could have sought the views of Peter Smyth, who is reviewing the tendering process. I’m saddened for deputy Naughten, it’s been a difficult time for him – he’s a good constituency colleague,” said Mr Murphy.
Eugene Cummins, chief executive of Roscommon County Council, was generous in his praise of Mr Naughten, saying he was central to the designation of Athlone as a regional growth centre under the National Planning Framework and that he pushed for the inclusion of the N5 development from Ballaghaderreen to Scramogue.
“It’s always a joy to meet deputy Naughten – he’s confident and competent in a humble way. I feel sorry for the people of Roscommon, in a way,” said Mr Cummins.
If you’re trying to get business on board then you have to meet business people on an ongoing basis – that’s how business is done
Independent councillor Domnick Connolly, a close ally of Mr Naughten, is also sales manager with Eurona Brisknet, one of three independent wireless broadband providers in Roscommon.
“It’s not cost-effective to provide broadband for any provider as it means erecting box stations on every pole in rural areas. That’s expensive,” said Mr Connolly. “He [Naughten] couldn’t allow the companies involved in the tendering process to concentrate just on towns and villages.
“After the events of the past week, is anyone else going to support the provision of broadband? I think any potential provider will be nervous of showing an interest after the fallout last week, which is regrettable.”
Mr Connolly defended Mr Naughten’s role in the procurement process. “If you’re trying to get business on board, like broadband in rural areas, then you have to meet business people on an ongoing basis – that’s how business is done,” said the councillor.
While there’s broad sympathy for Mr Naughten, concern remains over the future rollout of broadband in rural areas , a view held by local Fine Gael Senator Maura Hopkins.
“People are very frustrated many of these communities do not have a timeline for the rollout of broadband in their area. From my interactions with business people and across our region, I know the lack of high-speed broadband remains one of the key barriers to growth for many businesses locally,” she said. Cllr Laurence Fallon, who also left Fine Gael in 2011 in solidarity with Mr Naughter, said if he were “a minister of lesser determination, he would still be a minister”.
“I would say he’ll continue to work with huge determination for the people of this county.”
As to the former minister’s legacy, Mr Fallon felt “keeping broadband on track and bringing regional status to Athlone” are two achievements “that won’t be forgotten”.