Miriam Lord: Naughten runs for cover under close questioning

Frustrated Fianna Fáil chief Micheál Martin resorts to . . . Jack Nicholson impression

Minister for Communication Denis Naughten’s protestations that he didn’t stay for lunch brought lovely memories flooding back of the Mahon tribunal. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

Minister for Communication Denis Naughten’s protestations that he didn’t stay for lunch brought lovely memories flooding back of the Mahon tribunal. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

 

The Minister for Communications sat next to the Taoiseach. Both men looking very glum.

Across the floor, Micheál Martin was on his toes, peppering for action.

The Fianna Fáil leader dropped the T-bomb into the conversation, a brave thing to do for a Fianna Fáil leader.

“Now,” he said ominously to Leo Varadkar, “we’ve had tribunals about this type of thing in the past”.

“Down with this type of thing” is what we say . The horror of recent tribunals is still too raw to contemplate any reruns.

But not Denis Naughten, the Minister for Communications, who has taken a leaf from the Stevie Wonder songbook and doesn’t worry about a thing.

The last thing was in April. That’s when Denis had a cosy chat on the telephone with a well known PR man of the lobbying kind, who also happens to be a pal through rugby and an acquaintance from the PR man’s days as a government spin doctor.

The old pal rang the Minister to shoot the breeze about the proposed takeover of a media group by the major media group (Independent News & Media) he was representing. And the Minister shared his “private” opinion on the current state of play.

Denis Naughten nearly lost his job when that thing came out. He had to explain himself to the Dáil.

He confessed his main fault is that he is too “accessible” to people, pointing to the fact that his mobile phone number was up there for all to see on his website.

With hindsight, the Minister ruefully admitted that perhaps he shouldn’t have taken the call and sincerely regretted his actions.

“Decision makers such as Minister Naughten are properly and normally insulated from lobbying and any attempt to influence them during a tendering process” said the Fianna Fáil leader.

That isn’t a quote from April.

He said that on Tuesday.

It’s a mega-million euro contract for whoever gets the nod

Another type of thing has come up for accessible Denis, this time to do with social encounters, with the man leading the sole bid to roll out broadband to every part of the country.

It’s a mega-million euro contract for whoever gets the nod.

Hence the need to fully insulate Ministers involved. Who can forget everything that happened after the country’s second mobile phone licence was handed out?

Arms length, insulation, belt, braces and bargepole should now be deployed as standard by Ministers within sniffing distance of anyone or anything to do with a tender or takeover while the process is still active. It should be instinctive.

Unfortunately, it seems Denis is somewhat short in the instinct department. To put your foot spectacularly in one compromising business situation may be regarded as a misfortune; to do it twice looks like carelessness. And that’s the kindest interpretation.

It recently came to light that the Minister attended a dinner in New York in July hosted by the boss of the investment company in pole position to win the broadband contract. The dinner was “a social event” although a number of his officials briefly discussed the bid with David McCourt.

The issue came under scrutiny in the Dáil, causing more of a stir than the budget, which had everyone yawning in the aisles.

Martin devoted his slot at Leaders’ Questions to the dinner. But the issue was raised earlier during ministerial questions, when dinner morphed into a fascinating investigation of lunch.

Fianna Fáil’s Timmy Dooley wanted to know if Naughten had lunch with David McCourt in Leinster House on April 18th. In fact, Timmy was “able to confirm” that the businessman lunched there on the day in question.

But was Denis there too?

And what was going on? Timmy was astonished that such a meeting would have taken place on the very day – and this was the icing on the investigative cake – that the Minister was being hauled over the coals in the chamber over his ill-judged call to his rugby pal, the lobbyist.

“Why, in God’s name” wondered the TD, did he allow himself to be embroiled in another such incident?

First, he said he didn’t attend the lunch

The Minister’s response to the Fianna Fáil man, and to the other spokespeople, was curious and very cagey.

First, he said he didn’t attend the lunch. Then he said it was his “understanding” that McCourt and his family had been in for lunch that day.

But it was in the Members’ restaurant, Dooley reminded him. Might the appointment be in his ministerial diary?

Might be, but he didn’t know, replied the Minister.

Sinn Féin’s Brian Stanley and Solidarity’s Paul Murphy chipped away at his story. But the Minister remained determinedly vague.

Finally, Fianna Fáil’s James Brown, a barrister by trade, had a go.

Under heaving questioning, the Minister revealed that he made the booking for lunch. Guests must be signed into the restaurant by an Oireachtas member.

He “facilitated” the family coming into Leinster House, “as many colleagues do.” David McCourt wanted to bring his daughter on a tour of Leinster House and then bring her to lunch for her birthday.

The businessman lives in the Merrion Hotel when he is in Dublin. At least they didn’t have far to go for lunch.

But if they did, perhaps they might have hired a driver to take them to Dáil. Denis could of done the honours.

Naughten’s protestations that he didn’t stay for lunch brought lovely memories flooding back of the time in the Mahon tribunal when a man called Michael Wall, who was very generous indeed to Bertie Ahern when he was a minister, attended a function in Manchester in Bertie’s honour. But he didn’t really, because, as he explained to the tribunal, “I didn’t eat the dinner”. He just drove the bus.

Denis didn’t eat the lunch.

Did he eat the dinner in New York?

Micheál Martin is not happy with the whole affair.

In my view the Minister has contaminated the process

“I mean, people externally looking into this country might be tempted to say now that the key to getting a lucrative contract in Ireland is face time with the Minister . . . It is extraordinary, Taoiseach, that this has occurred and in my view the Minister has contaminated the process.”

He read out the issues discussed in New York between officials from the department and McCourt. They were dismissed by Leo Varadkar and Naughten as “administrative” matters.

Micheál vehemently disagreed.

Then he did his Jack Nicholson impression.

“Like, this is the meat!” he cried, slapping the printed page with his hand. “This is the GODDAMN meat of the bid!”

We hoped he would follow up with, “You can’t handle the truth!” But he didn’t.

Denis, meanwhile, was still gingerly handling the truth.

It turns out he paid for David McCourt’s lunch.

It cost €37. Although that’s not what the opposition will be saying in the days to come.

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