Denis Naughten defends his actions on broadband plan

Former minister resigned earlier this year amid controversy over meetings with bidder

Former minister for communications Denis Naughten has addressed the Dáil. File photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Former minister for communications Denis Naughten has addressed the Dáil. File photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

 

Former minister for communications Denis Naughten has said his only objective in the National Broadband Plan tendering process was “to keep the remaining bidder at the table”.

Mr Naughten resigned earlier this year during a controversy over meetings, phonecalls and dinners he had with US businessman David McCourt, leader of the last remaining bid in the process to provide high-speed fibre broadband to 542,000 homes and businesses in rural areas.

“At no time did I interfere or try to interfere with the process to benefit any bidder. I facilitated every meeting with all the bidders in the dialogue process,” he told the Dáil on Tuesday.

He also questioned the “theme emerging in recent months of innuendo and aspersions inside this chamber and outside questioning the capability of the last remaining bidder to deliver”.

He said: “It is not for any of us to determine right now. It is for the 80-strong expert evaluation team [for the tender]. What is driving this narrative – to collapse the plan altogether?

“It may actually have that desired effect, which will cause more heartache for the 1.2 million people in rural Ireland.

“I’m appealing to colleagues to let the evaluation team do their job. Over the last 34 months the most capable people in Europe, with experience in highly complex procurement projects, have been working on this particular project.”

The former minister warned that “the frustration on the ground is reaching boiling point. If it [rural broadband rollout] is not delivered soon the benefit may be lost forever and investment will not flow to rural and regional Ireland.”

Mr Naughten was speaking during a debate on the report of the independent auditor Peter Smyth into the controversy, which found that Mr Naughten’s actions had not favoured the Granahan McCourt bid.

Earlier on Tuesday, Minister for Communications Richard Bruton told the Dáil that remarks by the National Broadband Plan programme director on Twitter dismissing recent media criticism of the plan as nonsense should not have happened and would not be repeated.

‘No understanding’

The director had tweeted: “These guys [in the media] have no understanding of the telecoms market which is very complex as you know and we have just dropped nearly 20 million getting the best advice possible from people that do understand telecoms.”

The Minister added that “the individual concerned has been very passionate and concerned to deliver” on the broadband plan.

He also said he would bring a memo on the issue to Government “in the coming weeks” following the evaluation process for the project, but that “I’m not going to say [this will happen] before Christmas because Christmas is almost upon us”.

In his contribution, Mr Naughten said it was the department and not the minister who was responsible for the governance and evaluation of the National Broadband Plan.

He reminded TDs that Oireachtas communications committee members had repeatedly highlighted the need to progress the project.

He quoted a committee member as saying that “it may be considered unfortunate to lose one bidder but surely it is careless to lose two bidders. What happens if we lose a third bidder? What is Plan B?”

He also quoted the committee member as saying that the issue “is a national emergency that requires emergency measures”.

Mr Naughten said he acted in order “to keep the remaining bidder at the table”, to ensure that every citizen in the country was treated equally.

He pointed out that “successive ministers have failed miserably to bring this crucial national project to completion”.

He added: “My only objective and goal as minister was to bring this project to completion for the families, for the businessowners, for the workers, and for the farmers of rural Ireland who have been waiting for far too long to become equal citizens in this digital age.”