Miriam Lord: Denis in blunderland and the magically morphing consortium

The consortium bidding on the broadband plan is different but the same, says Varadkar


There was a touch of Through the Looking Glass to the Taoiseach’s answer on the topic of the day. Humpty Dumpty’s scornful reply to Alice came to mind: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

Leo Varadkar was replying to Micheál Martin’s questions about the integrity of the tendering process for the new national broadband plan.

“The consortium has changed but it is not a new consortium. It is a consortium that has changed in its composition during the process,” declared Leo, as opposition TDs started laughing at him.

“But it’s not a new consortium!” he insisted, his inflection rising at the end of the sentence.

That only set them off again.

Brendan Howlin engineered a dramatic lightbulb moment.

“Transubstantiation,” cried the Labour leader, offering an explanation for Leo’s substantially shapeshifting broadband body which still remains the same.

“But we have one-fifth of what we had,” protested Fianna Fáil’s Thomas Byrne, struggling to get his head around the altered state of the original consortium.

Whatever. The Taoiseach wanted to move on. He was more interested in the really good bits of the report he commissioned in the wake of Denis Naughten’s resignation as minister for communications after it emerged he had a number of private contacts with the head of the last remaining consortium bidding for the lucrative broadband contract.

The dinners were a big thing.

Before the Dáil began for another week, an incredulous Timmy Dooley, Fianna Fáil’s Communications spokesman, was asking on RTÉ’s News at One: “Why the need for five dinners, Áine?”

Puntastic form

His boss was similarly concerned during Leaders’ Questions, because while most of the meetings between the two men were in the presence of officials who kept notes, a handful of them were private.

“Eighteen meetings, nine telephone calls and five dinners,” marvelled deputy Martin, in puntastic form. “What stands out really is the extraordinary level of, dare I say, connectivity between Granahan McCourt and the former minister.”

We see what you did there, Micheál.

Never mind that. Back to the Taoiseach.

“So what’s happened now is we have a report here from the independent process auditor Peter Smyth. It is there for anyone to read. If you don’t have the time just read pages 18 and 19.”

In the words of the author of the report, Denis had “insulated the process” by stepping down

It’s a long report, so it was kind of him to point people to his favourite passages.

“The good bits,” snorted Thomas Byrne.

Those pages tell you all you need to know, he said. They show that by resigning and removing himself from the scene, the minister allayed concerns relating to his involvement in the process or his involvement with Mr McCourt.

In the words of the author of the report, Denis had “insulated the process” by stepping down.

This left Timmy Dooley wondering if “the same rules applied to Mr McCourt”.

Broadband. It’s an awkward one for the politicians because nobody wants to be charged during an election campaign with hindering the much-needed provision of decent rural broadband. Yesterday isn’t soon enough for it.

So while the Opposition knows it has to question the tendering process for the latest plan, it must tread carefully lest it ends up accused of delaying the rollout even further. The Fianna Fáil leader did his best to make his points in light of the publication of the Smyth report, but he could have been far more robust had he chosen.

Magicians’ line

He rolled out his new favourite phrase, though. “High Presto!” It’s a variation on the old magicians’ line.

Noting how the Taoiseach said it is well known that the make-up of the bidding consortium has changed, he asked: “How is that acceptable that someone goes through prequalification, goes through the three stages and at the fourth and last stage – High Presto! – - a new consortium emerges and that’s fine – sure we all know about it, don’t we?”

“That needs explanation, Taoiseach, it genuinely needs explanation. It’s not covered at all, or dealt with at all by the report. It’s a very fundamental question in terms of how we do bidding processes of this kind.”

If all else fails, maybe Santa can do something about the rural broadband plan. Maybe he can deliver the goods this Christmas

The final tender came in a couple of months ago and is being evaluated by the department, he was told. Everything will be examined again, including the consortium.

“When that examination concludes, the Government will be in a position to make a decision on whether we can proceed with this bid.”

If all else fails, maybe Santa can do something about the rural broadband plan. Maybe he can deliver the goods this Christmas.

Wouldn’t it be marvellous if, this Friday night, on the Late Late Toy Show, Ryan Tubridy could magic a workable broadband system from behind a reindeer’s ear and announce: “There’s one for everyone in the audience. And there’s one for half a million rural households too!”

Big treat

Tubridy was in the public gallery on Tuesday afternoon, watching Leaders’ Questions with his mother and daughter. We can only hope he bought them both a big treat on Grafton Street to make up for their ordeal.

Things must be torrid at the Late Late rehearsals if Ryan is retreating to Dáil Éireann for some light relief. Perhaps there is just too much energy and excitement out in Montrose at the moment. At least Leaders’ Questions will have delivered the required sedation.

The TDs didn’t notice his presence, which was disappointing. Had the news gone around, they would have delighted the chamber with shameless displays of overacting.

Meanwhile, a number of party leaders will be having HIV tests in Leinster House on Wednesday afternoon to mark World AIDS Day, which is on Saturday. Micheál Martin, Mary Lou McDonald and Brendan Howlin will join fellow TDs undergoing the test. The Taoiseach is unable to attend due to a prior commitment.

The theme of this year’s World AIDS Day is “Know Your Status” and aims to remind people that HIV can happen to anyone, regardless of their age, gender or sexual orientation.