Naughten had four private dinners with broadband contract bidder

Naughten contradicts Taoiseach’s account to the Dáil about the dinners

October 11th, 2018: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar asked Denis Naughten to resign as minister for communications after he revealed he had four private dinners with the key bidder in the broadband procurement process. Video: Oireachtas TV

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Denis Naughten has said he told Taoiseach Leo Varadkar on Wednesday night that he had four private dinners with the key bidder in the broadband procurement process.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Six One News on Thursday, he contradicted what the Taoiseach told the Dáil earlier.

Mr Varadkar had said in the Dáil, that Mr Naughten told him about one of the dinners in a phone call on Wednesday night and did not tell him about the other three dinners until Thursday morning.

In the TV interview, Mr Naughten was firm that he had told the Taoiseach on Wednesday night about all four dinners with David McCourt, the chairman of Granahan McCourt, a key bidder for the national broadband plan contract.

“I told the Taoiseach of four dinners that I had with David McCourt last night,” he said.

“ I sat down with the Taoiseach today and the Taoiseach was concerned in relation to the optics in relation to this and I clearly set out to him look that there were options to address those optics . . . but that didn’t seemingly suit the Taoiseach’s plan in relation to it.”

Priority

He said his “ plan and priority all along has been to deliver high speed broadband to every single home in Ireland” and “that requires engagement with the industry and that’s what I have been doing”.

He said any time he had meetings in relation to the national broadband plan “they have been minuted”.

“It is not justifiable for me as Minister not to engage with some of the biggest companies in Ireland, some of the biggest companies internationally . . .” Mr Naughten said.

He said in his conversation with the Taoiseach, Mr Varadkar “asked me to consider my position”. “I made the decision [to resign] this afternoon because I felt I didn’t have the support of the Taoiseach in relation to this.”

He described the situation as “frustrating”.

Asked whether he would continue to support the Government, he said he would have to deal with it “on a case by case basis”.

“As and when issues come up, I will deal with them on a case by case basis,” he repeated.

‘Clear account’

Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe, also speaking on the Six One News, said he believed the Taoiseach’s version of events in relation to when he knew about the dinners.

“The Taoiseach has given a very clear account of this issue and I obviously accept his view in relation to the matter and the facts that he has outlined,” Mr Donohoe said. “The fact that the scale of these meetings were happening in the first place, the fact that the Taoiseach and the Government weren’t aware of them . . . given the sensitivity of this tendering process, it would create serious issues regarding the tendering process if the Taoiseach didn’t take the action he did.”

He said the meetings and the way in which they were communicated to the Taoiseach, and the need for the minister to be outside the tendering process, “would have raised the gravest of issues regarding how that process is being conducted”.

“That is why it is so imperative the Taoiseach acted in the way he did.”

He rejected the suggestion it was time to call an election.

“Next week, we have an October European council taking places at which key issues in relation to Brexit will be dealt with that will shape our country for generations to come. We also have a finance bill to implement the Budget that was passed by the Dáil on Tuesday night and social welfare legislation,” he said.

Richard Bruton

Mr Varadkar told the Dáil on Thursday afternoon he had appointed Minister for Education Richard Bruton as Minister for Communications on a temporary basis following the shock resignation of Mr Naughten.

He said that in resigning “Denis has acted in the public interest”.

Mr Varadkar said Mr Naughten later phoned him and said he had a private dinner with Mr McCourt in his home in 2017.

“He asked that he be shuffled to another Ministry,” or hand over the process to Minister of State Sean Kyne.

“I said I would reflect on that overnight.”

The Taoiseach said Mr Naughten told him on Thursday morning that “he had at least three other private dinner with Mr McCourt” of which there was no record.

He said he had no doubt the minister’s intentions were honourable “but he left himself open to a allegations of a conflict of interest”.

“Ultimately as minister he had a decision making role,” he said.

Mr Varadkar told the Dáil he had sought a report from Peter Smyth, the independent process auditor for the National Broadband Programme in order to assess whether or not the process has been compromised.

“I deeply regret that these events have happened. But I believe in resigning, Denis has acted in the public interest. I am determined to see the National Broadband Plan through to completion.”

‘Good of the country’

Mr Varadkar said “sometimes there are days when I have to make decisions that may cause deep personal distress to others but are necessary for the good of the country.

“Today is one of those days. I have known Denis for over twenty years and we were in Young Fine Gael together and I have had nothing but respect for him as a person and a politician. I know today is a difficult day for Denis and those close to him.

“However, my job as Taoiseach must always be to put the public interest first.”

Mr Varadkar also told the Dáil that he too had met Mr McCourt earlier this year.

“For full disclosure I want to put on the record of the Dáil that I met Mr David McCourt on one occasion last March in the United States at a public event with the media present when I presented him with St Patrick’s Day Science Medal.

“We did not discuss the National Broadband Programme,” he said.

Mr Naughten had resigned earlier on Thursday afternoon.

In a speech to the Dáil, he said the Taoiseach had told him he did not have confidence in him.

He said “the outcome is more about opinion polls than telecom poles”.

He insisted that there had been no political interference by him in the procurement process for the National Broadband Plan contract.

Shock announcement

In a shock announcement to a stunned Dáil, Mr Naughten said the Taoiseach “had asked me to reflect on my position”.

He said he had met the Taoiseach last night and he had offered a confidential briefing to opposition spokespeople by the procurement team.

He had also offered a review of his role and that to address concerns of the Opposition, he would not in any way try to second guess the outcome of the process. He had offered to assign responsibility for the process to his Minister of State Sean Kyne or another Cabinet-level Ministers.

This was not accepted by An Taoiseach.

“It is clear to me therefore that the Taoiseach does not have confidence in me.”

Mr Naughten said that “if I was a cynic, which I’m not I believe the outcome is more about opinion polls than telecoms poles. It’s more about optics than fibre optics.”

He insisted that as Minister he had to meet investors whether in telecoms or energy or any other sector. These are the people who provide jobs in this country, he said. And that is the context in which he had meetings with David McCourt , the key bidder for the broadband contract.

He said that confidence did not exist even though he had introduced the first climate change national mitigation plan and national adaption plan.

Mr Naughten said the evaluation process on the plan is expected to conclude at the end of this month.

He asked that the procurement process to continue.

Priority

His absolute priority has always been to provide access to highspeed broadband to every citizen in the country “and for no other reason whatsoever”, he said.

He also said he the real risk to the plan now lay in “loose language and irresponsible politics at this crucial time”.

He was flanked by Minister of State Mary Mitchell O’Connor and Sean Kyne, with Minister for Transport Shane Ross and Minister of State Finian McGrath in attendance and five Fine Gael TDs sitting to his rear.

The Minister said he had been left “in the impossible stark position that a politician never wants to find themself in. Do I make the decision myself to resign or waiting for that decision to be made for me.”

He said “ I am absolutely satisfied that there has been no interference in the process by me”.

Mr Naughten hit out at the “political and media frenzy” which he described as deeply unhelpful. He said the commentary by those who were not experts, that this procurement process was “dead in the water” and that the final bidder did not have the capacity to roll out the national development plan was “incorrect and had been deeply damaging”.

This type of commentary was where the real risk to the broad plan arose, he said.

He said the use of language had been “inflammatory, inaccurate and ill considered”.

It had called into the question the integrity and capability of his officials and the external examiners.

Mr Naughten and his Independent Ministerial colleagues left opposition TDs called for the Taoiseach to address the issues.

No senior Minister was in the House after Mr Naughten left.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is to make a statement to the Dáil in the wake of the resignation.

Government Chief Whip Joe McHugh said that after the Taoiseach’s statement “normal business will resume”.

Lunch

Mr Naughten on Wednesday admitted he met David McCourt on two separate occasions and “facilitated” a lunch in the Dáil for him while the procurement process was ongoing.

The Minister also paid for the €37 lunch but did not attend the lunch or speak to Mr McCourt on the day.

On Wednesday in the Dáil the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar dismissed claims by Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin that Mr Naughten “contaminated” the rural broadband tendering process by meeting a key member of last remaining consortium bidding for the €500 million contract.

Mr Varadkar defended Mr Naughten’s meeting in New York in July with US businessman David McCourt and said it was acceptable “provided it conferred no advantage on Mr McCourt”.

On Thursday morning, Mr Varadkar said he was satisfied “so far” with the Minister for Communications’ explanation over his meetings with the lead bidder for the National Broadband Plan.

It emerged on Wednesday that Mr Naughten paid for lunch for Mr McCourt, in Leinster House last April.

Mr McCourt’s company is in line to secure one of the biggest public contracts ever awarded by the State, worth in excess of €500 million, should it succeed in winning the tender.

Mr Naughten was due to deliver a 10-minute long defence of his actions at 3pm in the Dáil when his resignation was announced.

The Taoiseach said on Thursday morning it was not unusual or wrong for the Minister to be engaging with industry. “In fact, that’s his job,” he told Virgin Media Television on Thursday.

“There’s a whole protocol around how the engagement should take place, that there should be officials there for example, that matters relating to that contract shouldn’t be raised, that it should be minuted and recorded. Denis is in the Dáil this afternoon, he’s going to clarify all of that.”

Mr Varadkar said he met with Mr Naughten on Wednesday evening. He said Mr Naughten has to come back to him with “a few more answers”, but when asked if he was satisfied on the matter, he said: “So far, yes.”

Mr Varadkar said he accepted how the optics are problematic and perception does matter “in politics and in business too”.

“But as I say Denis is going to be in the Dáil this afternoon and he’s going to clarify all of those aspects and I’d like to give him the opportunity to do that first,” he added.

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