Miriam Lord: Once again, broadband proves it’s a political hot potato

Varadkar pushes the due diligence message, while warning costs could be much higher

Leo did his best to distance the rising cost of the national broadband project from that of the National Children’s Hospital. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Leo did his best to distance the rising cost of the national broadband project from that of the National Children’s Hospital. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

In a seamless and friction-free slide from one shambles to another, Brexit gave way to Broadband for a brief midday wander along Due Diligence Drive.

It made a nice change from all the talk about Robert, even if Bob’s yer uncle when it comes to guilt-free windbagging in the Dáil. Broadband, however, is not such an easy topic.

(We were joking last week when we called the Brexit Omnibus Bill “Bob”. Then the Taoiseach began peppering his speech on Wednesday with references to “Bob” this and “Bob” that. Strange, as the acronym didn’t appear in his script, probably because it sounds decidedly odd when spoken aloud.)

While the Opposition may carp about the Bill’s late arrival and question the Government’s ability to adequately cope with the Brexit challenge, Leo Varadkar can justifiably claim this shambles is The Other Crowd’s mess.

But broadband? That’s a red-hot potato of a differently dangerous kind.

When Micheál Martin brought it up during Leaders’ Questions, Leo lowered the visor on his helmet, pulled on a pair of asbestos gloves, grabbed a ten-foot bargepole and gingerly approached the issue.

The Fianna Fáil leader gave him a potted history of the various promises on broadband from Fine Gael governments since 2012.

There were Pat Rabbitte’s “humble expectations” of delivering high-speed broadband to every home and business in the country for the knockdown cost of around €350m. And then Alex White, another Labour communications minister, announcing a new strategy in 2016 which would bring 85 per cent coverage delivered by 2019 and 100 per cent by next year. All for an estimated €500m.

One didn’t happen, the other won’t and the estimated cost is for the birds.

‘A bit of a mess’

“As we know, the tendering process has been very, very difficult – a bit of a nightmare,” said Micheál, putting it mildly, before mentioning last year’s debacle which ended with the resignation of then minister, Denis Naughten.

“A bit of a mess around October”, as he put it.

Now we have Richard Bruton in the hot seat, who has been saying for months that he will have a recommendation before cabinet on the last remaining tender in the new few weeks. But it’s nearly March and still no sign.

“It’s been a tortuously slow process – numerous promises made and not fulfilled,” observed the Fianna Fáil leader, wondering when a decision will be made. And if the tender is accepted, would the Taoiseach have any idea what it might cost? At all at all?

Visions of the ever-expanding bill for the national children’s hospital flooded Government minds.

Leo, in bomb-disposal mode, stressed that things “have changed a lot in recent years” since that first estimate for broadband was optimistically suggested.

Extending an asbestos-covered finger, he gave the National Broadband Programme a cautious prod and said something about costs being driven up. “As things stand” no bidder has been selected “as due diligence is still underway”.

And just to be very clear, while no tender has been received it will be “many multiples of what the original estimate was”. But, and just to be very, very, very, clear, this is “VERY DIFFERENT TO THE CHILDREN’S HOSPITAL”.

Oh, yes. He won’t be getting caught out like that again.

Whenever the decision, vowed Leo, “it is a decision we want to be very transparent about”.

Wait and see how Brexit pans out

And anyway, he says that due diligence is still being done and there’s the cost-benefit analysis to consider, and don’t forget “the consultants who examined it for deliverability” and then the Government “of course” still has to do some work, as does the Department of Public Expenditure and, oh, have we mentioned the “international review panel involved” making sure the whole kit and caboodle makes sense?

The Taoiseach, doing fantastic work at this stage with the bargepole, wanted people to understand that because achieving the broadband rollout “is going to be much more expensive than we had anticipated, we have to see how the public finances can bear it”.

Remember, he cautioned, we have to see how “the events of the next couple of weeks” pan out, Brexit-wise.

After that earful, Micheál Martin reckoned things weren’t looking too healthy on the broadband front.

“Is there now a significant question mark over whether this plan is going to be rolled out or not?” He doubted if the Government was ever going to make a decision. However, in the unlikely event of the cabinet actually accepting the poisoned broadband chalice, was it too much to “expect some precision around the actual potentials costs?”

Probably.

Leo is not going to be rushed. Just because his Government is in charge of running the country doesn’t mean it will be saddled with making a decision on broadband. At least not until the blame is well and truly spread around.

Trying to be helpful, he told Micheál it is his “objective” to be “in a position” to make a decision before Easter. “That’s the plan.”

But. But. “Due Diligence is still underway” and, at the risk of repeating himself, the increased costs will have an impact on the public finances. Brexit notwithstanding, this won’t hit this year but there would be “significant impact” from next year and onwards.

The Taoiseach, now expertly directing his ten-foot bargepole like a sgt major’s swagger stick, explained how the cost of the broadband rollout will be spread over the next 30 years.

“So I don’t think it should just be a decision for this government alone, because the impact will fall on future governments too,” he said, deftly flicking away potential controversy.

“Again, quite different to other projects that are in the news at the moment.” Quite. Move away, folks, no children’s hospital to see here.

“And that’s why we want to be transparent on it and we also want to consult with the Oireachtas on it.” So the rest won’t be shouting blue murder whenever the time comes to call in the management consultants for an expensive report in advance of the resignations and public inquiry.

You can’t say you weren’t warned.

Good work Leo.