Government stands by Naughten amid accusations of ‘old-style’ politics

Simon Coveney defends Minister for Communications in heated Dáil exchanges

Simon Coveney on Denis Naughten: “in my view he did not do anything that constitutes giving inappropriate information to anybody. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins Tánaiste Simon Coveney said he had confidence in Denis Naughten as Minister for Communications. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Simon Coveney on Denis Naughten: “in my view he did not do anything that constitutes giving inappropriate information to anybody. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins Tánaiste Simon Coveney said he had confidence in Denis Naughten as Minister for Communications. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

 

Tánaiste Simon Coveney has expressed confidence in Minister for Communications Denis Naughten during heated Dáil exchanges about Mr Naughten’s controversial telephone call with an Independent News & Media (INM) lobbyist.

“Yes, I do have confidence in Denis Naughten as Minister,” Mr Coveney said on Thursday. I have known him for 20 years, and I know him as a straight Minister, just as he is a straight politician.”

Mr Coveney said Mr Naughten regretted his conversation with PR executive Eoghan Ó Neachtain. “But, in my view, he did not do anything that constitutes giving inappropriate information to anybody.”

Mr Coveney told the Dáil the communication between the lobbyist and INM after that was a matter for them to explain.

Mr Naughten on Thursday expressed “sincere regret” for his contact with the lobbyist acting for INM in relation to the company’s proposed takeover of Celtic Media.

In a statement to the Dáil on Wednesday the Minister said he offered only a “personal view” to the lobbyist; on Thursday he said he now regretted “expressing my opinion”. He said he “acted to the letter of the law” when he had a conversation with Mr Ó Neachtain in November 2016 about the mooted takeover. He also insisted he had “no inside information” to give.

Fianna Fáil deputy leader Dara Calleary said on Thursday it smacked of “old-style politics and cronyism” that Fine Gael always said it was above. The lobbyist wanted a heads-up on what would happen with the merger application. “That is not as simple as a phone call between two mates,” he said.

Accessible Minister

Mr Coveney said Mr Naughten had made it clear he regretted the conversation but it should be put in context. The Minister gave a view but also made clear he would be following his officials’ advice. He said Mr Naughten was an accessible Minister with his mobilephone number on his website.

Sinn Féin deputy leader Pearse Doherty said commercially sensitive information was involved and it was “ absolutely unacceptable”. He described it as an example of “old-style politics of the golden-circle variety, the nod-and-the-wink culture.”

Labour leader Brendan Howlin said a Minister performing a statutory duty “is always a Minister. Cabinet conduct rules are clear. Ministers can’t be private citizens when they choose to be in the middle of a statutory function.”

Mr Naughten should not have taken the call or provided his views on his likely course of action, as it “undoubtedly compromised” the statutory process, Mr Howlin added.

The Tánaiste said that it was an important process but that when the phone call took place “the Minister’s part in the process had not begun”.

The Irish Times on Wednesday reported details from court documents filed by the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement as part of a bid to have High Court inspectors appointed to INM. These referred to the conversation between Mr Ó Neachtain and Mr Naughten about whether the mooted takeover would go to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland for assessment. The conversation was allegedly relayed to Denis O’Brien, INM’s largest shareholder, two months before a decision was made.