Harris hits out at FF leader’s ‘disgraceful conduct’ over Fitzgerald resignation

Former tánaiste was ‘hounded’ from office, senior Minister claims

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

 

Minister for Health Simon Harris has hit out at Micheál Martin over what he described as the Fianna Fáil leader’s “disgraceful conduct” in the lead up to the resignation of former tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald last year.

Speaking after a day of political turmoil that saw Denis Naughten resign as Minister for Communications and the publication of the Disclosures Tribunal report that cleared Ms Fitzgerald of any wrongdoing, Mr Harris said he did not believe the Government was in danger of collapsing.

However, he said there was a “renewed urgency” on Mr Martin to engage with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar on the future of the confidence-and-supply agreement, the deal between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael that keeps the minority Fine Gael-led Government in power. Under the agreement, Fianna Fáil abstains in Dáil votes and supports budgets. Under the deal, Fianna Fáil committed to supporting three budgets, the third of which was presented in the Dáil this week.

Ms Fitzgerald was yesterday cleared of any wrongdoing in a report published by the chairman of the Disclosures Tribunal, Mr Justice Peter Charleton. The report accepted her actions were correct at all times. Ms Fitzgerald said there was “different information” in front of the tribunal than the allegations that were made against her in the Dáil last November, when she resigned.

Mr Naughten resigned as Minister for Communications amid controversy surrounding private meetings he had with one of the lead bidders in the National Broadband Plan, David McCourt.

His departure further eroded the Government’s working majority in the Dáil and the revelations about Ms Fitzgerald’s handling of matters relating to the Garda as minister for justice put further strain on Fine Gael’s relationship with Fianna Fáil.

Hounded from office

Mr Harris on Friday strongly criticised Mr Martin over Ms Fitzgerald’s resigning adding that “a good woman” had been “hounded from office”. He said Ms Fitzgerald had now been totally vindicated and said Mr Martin had decided that Ms Fitzgerald was not entitled to due process.

“He, for political expediency in an effort to mark Sinn Féin, demanded her head on a plate.”

“It was disgraceful conduct. He should apologise and correct the record of the Dáil, as should [Sinn Féin leader] Mary Lou McDonald.”

Mr Harris defended Pat Breen, Minister of State at the Department of Communications, over his role in inviting Mr Naughten to a dinner with Mr McCourt, a key figure in the sole remaining consortium bidding for the State national broadband contract.

He said ministers were asked to attend many events and it was up to them to carry out due diligence and to decide whether it would be appropriate to do so.

“Denis Naughten made the decision that it was (appropriate) and I think that is regrettable.”

Regina Doherty says a decision on the National Broadband Plan needs to be made very quickly. Photograph: Garrett White/Collins
Regina Doherty says a decision on the National Broadband Plan needs to be made very quickly. Photograph: Garrett White/Collins

Meanwhile, Minister for Social Protection Regina Doherty said a decision on the broadband plan needed to be made very quickly,

Mr Naughten’s departure further eroded the Government’s working majority in the Dáil and has thrown the future of the National Broadband Plan into doubt.

Senior Ministers last night told The Irish Times that they feared Mr Naughten’s contacts with Mr McCourt – at which events the Mr Varadkar, said there were no officials present and no minutes taken – had 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”.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, Ms Doherty said that decision needed to be made quickly.

“Our priority is to safeguard the process and deliver a broadband service to the 25 per cent of the country who don’t have broadband. They’re the people that the Government needs to deliver a service that the private companies won’t.”

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.

Dinners

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.

Ms Doherty said that the resignation of Mr Naughten was the best thing to safeguard the process. She defended Mr Naughten saying he was a close friend and had acted honourably at all times.

The worst thing about his resignation, she said, was that his decision to have the meetings with Mr McCourt, had left him open to allegations of inappropriate behaviour.

“I don’t think it was the number of dinners that matters, they shouldn’t have happened.”

She said she believed Mr Naughten had held the meetings with Mr McCourt in the best interests of the broadband plan.

“He wanted to deliver this project. His main plan was to procure a supplier to get broadband, to make life-changing things happen.

“He acted honourably, but he left himself open to allegations.”

On Thursday night Mr 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.

Ms Doherty rejected a suggestion that Mr Breen had also acted inappropriately, having a number of meetings with Mr McCourt.

“Pat Breen is the Minister with responsibility for business, I understand he has become friends with this man, but he has no responsibility for the National Broadband Plan. His job is to encourage business.

“Denis ultimately was the person making the decision of who gets the contract.”

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.