Miriam Lord: Shameless FG self-promotion leads to FF conniptions

Micheál Martin not happy as Fine Gael flock to broadband contract signing en masse

So what answer did the broadband minister have to the charges that Fine Gael hijacked a non-partisan infrastructural project for its own ends? Answer came there none. Minister Richard Bruton completely ignored the question. Photograph: Julien Behal Photography

So what answer did the broadband minister have to the charges that Fine Gael hijacked a non-partisan infrastructural project for its own ends? Answer came there none. Minister Richard Bruton completely ignored the question. Photograph: Julien Behal Photography

 

- Is this a stick I see before me?

- It is, Minister.

- Excellent. Stand back there now while I grasp the wrong end of it. Listen and learn…

Richard Bruton didn’t bat an eyelid on Wednesday when the Fianna Fáil leader called out Fine Gael for turning the formal signing of a State contract into a cheerleading session for the Government.

The Minister for Communications had no idea what Micheál Martin was talking about. Certainly, if Micheál was referring to his party’s decision to turn a dry, non-partisan, serious business event into a vehicle for shameless self-promotion, that charge (guilty, yer honour!) went right above Richard’s head.

Just to recap, on Tuesday, the Government signed a €3 billion contract with a private consortium to provide a rural broadband network. This does not involve Fine Gael money. Nor does it involve fitting special fibre cable into their Mount Street headquarters. Nor does it involve branding all work vehicles belonging to the installation company with Fine Gael go-faster stripes.

But the party never got the memo.

In terms of delivering the service, Fine Gael might consider itself the midwife. But national broadband is not, in any way, Fine Gael’s baby. This didn’t deter Leo Varadkar and seven of his Ministers from chartering a special bus to Wicklow where they dandled baby Broadband as their own, complete with customised props, a large supporting cast of children, and a limitless pool of press releases, photographs and tweets.

Like we said, shameless. The act of signing the contract was conducted in a classroom, with the Minister and the businessman fronting the consortium sitting at table with primary schoolchildren.

You can’t blame the businessman David McCourt. His outfit stands to make a handsome financial killing later on down the line. Turning up for a cheesy Fine Gael photo op was well worth it for him.

Misgivings

But Micheál Martin is not happy. Unfortunately, he couldn’t communicate his misgivings to the Taoiseach, who was in Croatia at a European People’s Party meeting. That’s two days in a row attending party political events for Leo.

The Fianna Fáil leader had wanted to raise the important issue of how “government conducts itself” in the matter of “adhering strictly to the demarcation lines between office holders and party political events”.

When it comes to hitching itself to the national broadband rollout in order to reap some good publicity, this government has form. It happened during the local elections, said Micheál.

And now, “what should have been a formal, hands-off signing of a €3 billion contract between a private company and Government office holders was turned into a nakedly political byelection event attended by Fine Gael non-office holders, Fine Gael candidates and Fine Gael councillors”.

Across the floor, the measly 10 Government TDs who managed to turn up in the Taoiseach’s absence feigned hurt and surprise at such a suggestion.

“Fianna Fáil was there too,” countered Minister for Enterprise Heather Humphreys.

That would be Pat Casey, from Glendalough in Co Wicklow, who lives in the location chosen by the FG spinmeisters to stage their Sign on the Dotted Line production piece. Pat, the local TD, wasn’t invited, Micheál pointed out. He had to gatecrash.

“It was his former school, he found his way there. You guys organised a Fine Gael event. This is serious.” He said their action represented “a blurring of office holding and of Government activity with party political campaigning. It should not happen.”

Burnish party credentials

Richard Bruton, who participated in the touching contract vignette, was asked for assurances that the Government will not use publicly funded initiatives such as the broadband project to promote their candidates in the forthcoming byelections, and to burnish party credentials in advance of the general election.

He asked an intriguing question. “Can you confirm that the private companies who got this contract did not provide information to the Fine Gael party prior to the contract being signed?”

Outside of Government, there is Opposition suspicion that the finer details of this very complicated contract, involving valuable intelligence on where and when broadband might arrive in specific areas (the sort of info which would look great on leaflets) could be exploited by the Government during the general election.

So what answer did the broadband minister have to the charges that Fine Gael hijacked a non-partisan infrastructural project for its own ends?

Answer came there none. Minister Bruton completely ignored the question.

Instead, he assured the Dáil “that in every step in this we have been meticulous in ensuring that the public interest will be protected and that it was natural that at the signing of such an important contract we would have senior officials present who were involved in the development of this”.

If that’s the case, they’re employing them very young in the department these days. Some of those officials looked no older than seven.

‘Very significant project’

“The Government yesterday, on my recommendation, approved the project to go ahead. This is a very significant project for rural Ireland,” continued Richard, gamely gripping the wrong end of the stick as he earnestly stated the bleedin’ obvious.

Micheál Martin, meanwhile, was having conniptions. His opposition colleagues, cross-party, spluttered incredulously in support.

“Please deputy Martin,” beseeched the Ceann Comhairle. “We had children here last week and their behaviour was better and certainly more orderly.”

Richard rabbited on. A very significant decision made on the day “to decide that we would sign the contract”.

Amazing how Fine Gael managed to charter a charabanc and round up a Taoiseach and posse of Ministers, get schoolchildren from St Kevin’s in Glendalough back to class on what was supposed to be a day off for in-service teacher training, and then find the big glossy “Project 2040” backdrop and ancillary audio-visual paraphernalia in the hour or so before everyone headed off to Wicklow for a mid-morning announcement of their freshly-minted decision.

“It was an important event. I signed the contract and in every interaction with those who are tendering for such a project, of course, a minister would also be accompanied by officials.”

Of course. So they had to round up the poor officials to join the children at short notice too. Various worthies, including people from ComReg and “stakeholder” types and Fine Gael heads also saw the Bat signal from Government Buildings and headed to Glendalough.

‘Deserved the attention’

“This is really an important decision, and deserved the attention it got from ministers across government to be a part of an important announcement for the future of the country”.

Seven important Ministers plus a Taoiseach. Dear God in heaven, but all eight of them spoke and them with a not a thing prepared because the decision to sign the contract was only made at the last minute.

Oh, and one of them was Seán Canney, a Minister of State who is an Independent TD and not a member of Fine Gael. He provided great cover. How could it be a Fine Gael wheeze? Sure wasn’t Seán there?

It’s like the couple having an affair who book two hotel rooms and bring along the elderly mother so nobody would ever suspect they’re a cheating pair away on a dirty weekend. Genius work from the spin merchants there.

Sinn Féin’s Aengus Ó Snodaigh looked at Bruton in amused admiration. “He didn’t answer any of the questions that were put to him.”

When the circus left the classroom in Glendalough, one wag in attendance took the long-term view: “It’s brilliant. Our children will be superbly educated thanks to the broadband and they will become lawyers and solicitors and get great jobs in the Broadband tribunal when it happens, supporting us well into our old age.”

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