Surprise gives way to anger in Dáil as Denis Naughten resigns

No Fine Gael TDs were in chamber when the minister made his shock announcement

Denis Naughten resigns as Minister for Communications in the Dáil chamber.

Denis Naughten resigns as Minister for Communications in the Dáil chamber.

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When a very angry Denis Naughten announced his resignation as Minister for Communications to a stunned Dáil, there were no senior Fine Gael Ministers in the chamber.

In a shock announcement that he was standing down over his contacts with David McCourt, a key bidder in the National Broadband Plan, Mr Naughten said the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, “had asked me to reflect on my position”.

Mr Naughten said he had met the Taoiseach on Wednesday night and offered a confidential briefing to Opposition spokespeople by the procurement team.

He had also offered a review of his role and offered to assign responsibility for the process to his Minister of State Seán Kyne. This was not accepted by Mr Varadkar. “It is clear to me therefore that the Taoiseach does not have confidence in me,” said Mr Naughten.

“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 as minister he had to meet investors, whether in telecoms or energy or any other sector.

Mr Naughten said his absolute priority had always been to provide access to high-speed broadband to every citizen in the country “and for no other reason whatsoever”.

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

‘Stark position’

Mr Naughten said he had been left “in the impossible, stark position that a politician never wants to find themselves in. Do I make the decision myself to resign or wait 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.”

Very few were expecting the announcement, and such was the surprise after Mr Naughten immediately left the chamber that Labour leader Brendan Howlin suggested they adjourn as there was no Minister to answer questions.

He later said Mr Naughten’s resignation speech was “more akin to the resignation speeches we are used to hearing in the House of Commons, from people such as Boris Johnson coming in to explain the lack of confidence he had in the prime minister in that instance and the prime minister in him”.

Fianna Fáil communications spokesman Timmy Dooley said nobody on the Opposition had asked for his resignation but he wanted to shine a light on a process that was effectively fatally wounded because of the withdrawal of two of the main bidders.

By the time the Taoiseach arrived on Wednesday afternoon, there was a near-full Cabinet presence.

Phone call

Mr Varadkar said he had received a phone call from Mr Naughten late on Wednesday night informing him that “he had just remembered” that he had another meeting with Mr McCourt in the businessman’s home in 2017, which had been organised by Minister of State Pat Breen.

“He asked that he be shuffled to another ministry,” said Mr Varadkar. “I said I would reflect on that overnight.”

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

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

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

After the Taoiseach’s statement there was a different response to Mr Naughten’s resignation.

Fianna Fail leader Micheál Martin, who paid tribute to him on a “very difficult and sad day”, noted the Taoiseach’s comments that Mr Naughten would have been the “ultimate decision-maker” on the bid. “That is the very point I made yesterday in this house, and I was attacked for making it,” he said.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said the Taoiseach “may have made the right decision” but “the cosy nudge and wink politics between the Irish political establishment and very wealthy people is clearly alive and well”.

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