Tánaiste says his confidence in Naughten not undermined
Coveney calls for ‘fair hearing’ in Dáil for Minister to address broadband tender row
Tanaiste Simon Coveney: Denis Naughten had nothing to do with the technical side of broadband plan bidding. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill/The Irish Times
Minister for Communications Denis Naughten would like a “fair hearing” in the Dáil to address the issues around meetings with a key bidder for the National Broadband Plan contract, Tánaiste Simon Coveney has said.
He had spoken to the Minister on Thursday morning and “nothing he has told me has undermined my confidence in him”, Mr Coveney added.
He was speaking in advance of Mr Naughten making a statement to the Dáil on Thursday afternoon and taking questions from the Opposition about his contact with David McCourt,chairman of Granahan McCourt, the last remaining bidder in the tender process.
Labour leader Brendan Howlin said the issue was very simple and clear. “Despite what the Taoiseach said it is inappropriate for a Minister to have any contact with a procurement process.”
Leo Varadkar had told the Dáil that it was appropriate for a Minister to meet a bidder so long as it did not confer advantage on them.
But the Tánaiste said that it was “unrealistic” for a Minister not to meet bidders at functions and other events in a process that had gone on for over three years and had involved multiple parties.
Mr Coveney insisted that Mr Naughten had nothing to do with the technical process and did not discuss it.
Sinn Féin finances spokesman Pearse Doherty said the tender process had gone from “chaotic” to “absolutely bizarre”.
He asked Mr Coveney if he accepted that Mr Naughten breached his own protocols “as is laid out in black and white”. He said the protocol to the tender clearly stated that there should be no contact with the bidders during the tender process.
Mr Naughten met Mr McCourt the key bidder seeking the contract to provide rural broadband to over 500,000 households and businesses unable to access it through the normal process.
Mr Naughten admitted he met Mr 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.
The Tánaiste told Mr Doherty the minutes of Mr Naughten’s meeting with Mr McCourt on June 28th could be published before he makes a statement to the Dáil.
Mr Howlin reiterated that “there are very clear guidelines that there should be no meetings between the Minister” and bidders. “Why did those protocols not apply?” he asked.
But the Tanaiste pointed out that “for much of this process there wasn’t a lead bidder. Two others were part of this process and pulled out.”