Miriam Lord: some people can just lift the phone and talk to the right people

Minister learns that everything remains private until corporate big boys fall out

Minister for Communications Denis Naughten has denied that he misled the Dáil in his December 2016 statement on the purposed purchase of Celtic Media by INM. Video: Oireachtas TV


So Denis Naughten will survive.

He is a lucky man. The people who could have taken him out are too distracted by their own interests to seriously bother with him. They have general election plans to consider. And this isn’t the time to risk precipitating one.

People like him too. He is approachable and straight. He made his own luck there.

But the Minister for Communications is also unlucky.

What was the chance of his cosy telephone conversation with a former government press secretary turned lobbyist ever finding its way into the public realm? Next to impossible, one might have assumed.

Until along comes a nasty corporate battle and the affidavits start flying.

Everything remains private until the big boys fall out.

And suddenly we all know how a wet-behind-the-ears Minister for Communications had a nice chat with a well-connected communications executive who works for Independent News & Media which wants to know what decision the Minister for Communications is going to make about its bid to acquire another communications company.

And all Naughten has to communicate, in the nicest possible way, is “none of your business”. In fact he is obliged to say that.

But he doesn’t.

It was just a “personal” chat insists Naughten, who apparently wasn’t wearing his ministerial hat when talking to Eoghan Ó Neachtain, the government insider turned corporate media big-hitter who rang him up looking for info.

As you do.

Sure they know each other through rugby.

So that makes everything okay.

Naughten would never have imagined his interaction with O’Neachtain would become public. Even if it did, sure it was just a run-of-the-mill chat.

This week, the riveting, evolving story involving Denis O’Brien, corporate intrigue at Independent News & Media (where he is principal shareholder) and allegations of a massive data breach at the company rolled on. It will keep going, through the courts and the media, with all its associated strands.

It’s complicated and hard to keep up with sometimes.

We saw Karl Brophy and Gavin O’Reilly of Red Flag, the company locked in a legal battle with O’Brien, in the Dáil bar on Wednesday afternoon. They were there just as the right time to hear Naughten make his statement to the Dáil, but it was delayed and they couldn’t wait.

So complicated.

But what wasn’t complicated was the Naughten/Ó Neachtain cameo. It provided a vivid insight into how things work at the top end of business and politics, where the few make decisions which affect the many.

Unlucky Naughten was just caught out. And now everyone knows (what they sort of knew anyway) that some people can just lift the phone and talk to the right people on behalf of the well-got, influential people. And it’s all grand, because it’s a personal call.

The people with the best connections get paid the big bucks.

Naughten and Ó Neachtain know each other through the rugby. With others, it might be golf. Or five-a-side soccer.

The lads.

If you were cynical before hearing this week about Naughten and Ó Neachtain, you’ll be a bit more cynical now. If you’re the type of person who wants to think the best, it’ll be a little harder to do that now.

Not good.

TDs look to Bill balls system for questions solution

It’s like the garden fete from hell in the Dáil these days.

They’ve gone bingo and tombola mad. There was murder all week over the numbers, with heated accusations of skulduggery flying around.

Oireachtas officials conducted a special draw at the business committee meeting where one lucky TD won the chance to move a Private Member’s Bill (PMB) in two weeks’ time.

Not many people know this, but there is an Oireachtas wooden tombola and official balls.

There were 30 Bill balls in the lottery this week and Gerry Adams’s ball was drawn from the drum. It was “Number five – man alive!”

This means the former Sinn Féin leader will be on the floor in a fortnight with his European Communities (Brexit) Bill 2017.

The business committee’s tombola has worked so well in stemming complaints about favouritism in the PMB selection process that it may now be used to stop TDs whinging about who gets called to ask questions on proposed legislation. This session offers a high-profile chance to question the Taoiseach.

On Thursday, the committee was presented with a document outlining a range of options aimed at making questions on proposed legislation more agreeable to everyone.

They can keep the current card system, where TDs get laminated numbers on a first-come, first-served basis which puts them in a queue to speak. They’ve been fighting and sniping at each other over the cards since they were introduced.

Another option is to return to the traditional method of the Ceann Comhairle calling on TDs who catch his attention. That’s not likely to happen.

The third is to choose names at random. One suggestion is that TDs email in advance to get on a numbered speakers’ list, “the selection to be done in the Ceann Comhairle’s office, drawing numbers from the ‘tombola’”.

This “has the advantage of being less visible on TV but the disadvantage of also being less transparent to members”.

We are all for this option, but only if there is music and the tombola is televised. If the Ceann Comhairle is not up for it they could have Marty Whelan or a special guest to draw the lucky numbers.

The next option involves TDs approaching, in the chamber, the clerk of the Dáil, who will “write out cards (business card size) with the names and put them in a small box on the desk. The selection to be done (by the Ceann Comhairle or clerk) by drawing the pre-prepared numbers from the box”.

We’re all for this one too. It would inject a nice bit of drama into the proceedings. Children could enter a daily competition to do the draw, holding the winning tickets in the air for all to see.

Or failing that, Marty Whelan.

The process is definitely transparent but “it has the disadvantage of being very visible on TV, particularly when Members are giving their names to the clerk”.

So the final suggestion is a combination of the two. This is the favoured option.

TDs will email their names and get corresponding numbers which will be drawn from a small box in the chamber by the Ceann Comhairle or clerk.

This has the advantage of “being transparent to the members while retaining decorum”.

The small box has to go, though.

It’s the tombola or nothing.

Dáil bingo system unlucky for some

The business committee is right to do something about the speaking arrangements. The constant arguing over who is entitled to ask questions on proposed legislation is ridiculous.

On Wednesday, an exasperated Ceann Comhairle had to tell bickering politicians he can’t be held responsible for people who come into the chamber very early and book all the good numbers in advance.

As it stands, the bingo numbers are left in a little box up at the back of the chamber before business starts. Some deputies – the canny Healy-Raes are among the prime culprits – are always top of the queue, sometimes waiting for the official to come in with the box.

Fianna Fáil’s Kevin O’Keefe was so frustrated at missing out on chances to speak he reckoned he would have to sleep in the chamber to nab a low number. “Would it be possible to get an overnight here?” he asked Seán Ó Fearghaíl.

The puzzled TD for Cork East said he left an event on Kildare Street when certain other TDs (possibly from Kerry) were still there and “yet they still somehow managed to get in here before me” and get the best numbers.

Thursday witnessed an alarming escalation when Sinn Féin’s Pat Buckley and Fianna Fáil’s Jack Chambers both arrived with the number four. Young Chambers was incensed, repeatedly accusing Buckley of jumping the queue and printing a false card.

Egged on by his colleague Chambers, Declan Breathnach from Louth declared he had queued for his number and had not seen Pat Buckley there.

“Shame! Disgrace!” cried Mattie McGrath.

“It’s a disgrace! Deputy Buckley wasn’t in the queue,” wailed Chambers.

Wearily, the Leas Ceann Comhairle said he would look into the matter.

“Well, he wasn’t seen in the queue anyways,” sulked Kilkenny’s Bobby Aylward of Fianna Fáil as Mattie roared about people bringing the House into disrepute.

Somebody in the back row kept shouting: “All the fours, 44!”

The Tánaiste looked totally fed up with the lot of them. “We’re not talking about the numbers again, are we?” he groaned. “Could I just say, the more we talk about this numbers thing the more foolish we look on the outside.”

Never said a truer word.

The Leas Ceann Comhairle said the bingo-card situation was discussed that morning at the business committee and he had every confidence it would be sorted in the future.

“I understand it is finishing today, which is good news,” said Simon Coveney, smiling.

“No, it’s not!” chortled Sinn Féin’s Aengus Ó Snodaigh, who is a member of the committee.

“It might be, after this farce,” retorted Seán Canney.

Varadkar tackles Oireachtas rugby bash

The Taoiseach is a great man for the receptions.

Dublin Castle was bursting at the seams on Tuesday night when he hosted a big soiree in honour of workers and volunteers who did such a great job during Storm Ophelia and the other recent weather alerts.

On Wednesday, he was guest of honour at an end-of-season bash for the Dáil and Seanad Rugby XV in the Italian Room of Government Buildings. The Taoiseach of the day is automatic president of the club, although Leo Varadkar is also an active member. Brian Cowen was another stalwart in his day.

The team is drawn from politicians and Oireachtas staff, with usher Brendan Walsh installed this year as coach/manager of the outfit.

Fine Gael senator Neale Richmond is the team captain and he was at pains to point out that, while the room was free, they paid for everything else. (Perhaps not absolutely everything else. We hear that one of their sponsors is Diageo and some product was donated for the occasion.)

Over the years the team has raised many thousands of euro for the Rugby Players Ireland benevolent fund and a raffle for a signed Irish jersey made €2,600 on the night.

There was a big turnout from TDs (mostly male) who are still sound in wind and limb, while former Irish internationals Mike Ross and Hugo MacNeill called in, along with Grand Slam-winning and former Irish womens’ captain Fiona Coughlan.

But the most important and popular guests were the Six Nations and Triple Crown trophies.