More meetings between Naughten and broadband bidder

Department carried out a review of all meetings recorded in ministerial diaries

Denis Naughten, former minister for communications, resigned last week over contacts he had with David McCourt of Granahan McCourt, the last remaining bidder for the contract to roll-out rural broadband. File photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Denis Naughten, former minister for communications, resigned last week over contacts he had with David McCourt of Granahan McCourt, the last remaining bidder for the contract to roll-out rural broadband. File photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

 

Two further meetings between former minister for communications Denis Naughten and the lead bidder for the National Broadband Plan have been identified in a in a trawl of Government records.

Mr Naughten resigned last week over contacts he had with David McCourt of Granahan McCourt, the last remaining bidder for the contract to roll-out rural broadband.

The Department of Communications carried out a review of all meetings recorded in department or ministerial diaries between Mr Naughten and senior officials and Mr McCourt, Granahan McCourt and Enet, the telecoms consortium Mr McCourt recently sold shares in, after last week’s controversy.

Out of more than 40 meetings identified in the trawl – the vast majority involving officials only – two previously unknown meetings which Mr Naughten attended were found.

One took place on October 20th, 2016, between Mr McCourt and Enet and Mr Naughten, his officials and advisers. However, it is understood it concerned the State-owned Metropolitan Area Networks that “connect local area networks all around the country” rather than the NBP.

“Contact at various levels in the department with Enet would be expected,” the department said.

A second happened on June 26th, 2018, between Mr McCourt, Mr Naughten and a senior official in the Department of Communications. This is in addition to another, already publicised meeting between Enet and SSE and Mr Naughten, his officials and advisers on the same day.

Minute

A minute of the first meeting taken by the official present, Ciarán Ó hÓbáin was also discovered and published.

It says: “Accompanied Minister Naughten to meet with David McCourt in advance of NBP sponsors meeting that was scheduled to take place later that day.

“Mr McCourt communicated that he remained committed to investing in building high speed broadband infrastructure in rural Ireland and he asked as to the most likely approach of the department to the sponsors meeting later that day. I outlined to Mr McCourt that my expectation was the Minister and the department would speak very directly to what were considered the key issues which the consortium needed to address in order for the procurement to proceed to conclusion.”

The minute of the second meeting has already been published, as has one of another meeting between Mr McCourt and Mr Naughten and his advisers and officials in New York on July 16th last. Mr Naughten also organised a lunch in Leinster House for Mr McCourt and his family last April. The former minister did not attend the lunch but paid the €37 bill through an Oireachtas direct debit system.

All of these meetings are also in addition to four private dinners Mr Naughten had with Mr McCourt – at which no officials were present – which led to his resignation last week.

In outlining these meetings to the Dáil, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said Mr Naughten “left himself open to allegations of a conflict of interest and an inappropriate relationship with Mc McCourt which could have in turn brought the process into question, thus potentially jeopardising the project in its entirety”.

Earlier on Thursday, Minister of State at the Department of Communications Pat Breen said he believed he had done “nothing wrong”.

“The question of resigning was never on my mind, I did nothing wrong. I can’t add to a story that’s not there,” he told ClareFM’s Morning Focus show.

“At no stage here did I discuss the broadband plan with Denis Naughten or David McCourt.”

On Wednesday, Mr Varadkar said it was “unwise”of Mr Breen to pass on an invitation from Mr McCourt to Mr Naughten but “it is not a resigning matter”.

Mr Breen said he accepted that it was “a distraction”.

“The Taoiseach and Tánaiste have stood firmly behind me on this. Why? Because I have done nothing wrong here. I merely passed on an invitation here to minister Naughten. It was up to minister Naughten to accept or reject that invitation,” he said.

The records found in the trawl will now be sent to Peter Smyth, the independent auditor of the NBP, who is assessing whether the plan, which aims to make high-speed broadband available to some 540,000 unconnected rural properties, has been “compromised”.

His report is to be submitted to Minister for Communications Richard Bruton within three weeks.