Taoiseach does not recall Naughten giving details of more dinners
Varadkar: minister had not been in other CEOs’ homes ‘and therein lies the problem’
The Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was speaking in Bailieborough Community School in Co Cavan on Friday where he said he would make it a personal crusade to deliver broadband to 540,000 homes and businesses who currently cannot access it. File photograph: Dara Mac Donaill/ The Irish Times
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said he does not recall Denis Naughten giving details of more private dinners he had with the chief executive of a key bidder for the rural broadband contract when he spoke to the then Minister for Communications on Wednesday night.
Mr Varadkar said he was “quite shocked” that Mr Naughten had had a private dinner with the head of the remaining bidder for the multi million euro contract, David McCourt, at Mr McCourt’s home.
The former minister had not been in the homes of other bidders “and therein lies the problem”.
Mr Varadkar said that “Denis himself didn’t think it was appropriate that he should continue as Minister for Communications”.
The Taoiseach was speaking in Bailieborough Community School in Co Cavan on Friday where he said he would make it a personal crusade to deliver broadband to 540,000 homes and businesses who currently cannot access it. “I promise I’ll make it happen,” he said.
Mr Naughten has disputed the Taoiseach’s statement to the Dáil that he only told Mr Varadkar about additional private meetings with Mr McCourt on Thursday morning, and not on Wednesday night.
Mr Naughten resigned from his position on Thursday as it emerged that he had held four private dinners with Mr McCourt including one in the businessman’s home.
Mr McCourt leads the last remaining bid for the national rural broadband contract worth up to €500 million. The plan is intended to bring high-speed broadband to half a million homes.
The Taoiseach said on Friday that Mr Naughten changed his story a number of times in relation to those dinner meetings with Mr McCourt.
It had emerged on Wednesday that Mr Naughten had paid for a lunch for Mr McCourt when he visited the Dáil on April 18th last. Mr Naughten told the Dáil the booking for the lunch was made under his name but he did not meet Mr Mc Court on the day.
Mr Varadkar subsequently met Mr Naughten on Wednesday evening and the former minister phoned him shortly before midnight that night and they agreed to meet on Thursday.
Mr Naughten on Friday told his local radio station Shannonside that the Taoiseach knew all the details of his meetings with the broadband bidder, in a phonecall he made to Mr Varadkar shortly before midnight on Wednesday.
Mr Naughten said nobody at Thursday morning’s meeting showed any surprise when additional appointments with Mr McCourt were mentioned.
“There’s no reason for me not to be open and frank with the Taoiseach. I felt he needed to know it and I rang him Wednesday night and informed him of that.”
Speaking in Co Cavan on Friday Mr Varadkar said: “Initially there was a private dinner in New York with officials and minutes. Then there was also another meeting, then lunch in the Dáil.
“And then I was informed of more meetings. He didn’t give me any details of those in our first meeting and then rang me close to midnight to say that he also had had a private dinner in Mr McCourt’s house.
“That’s my recollection of that. I was quite shocked quite frankly to hear that. That’s my recollection. I don’t recall him telling me that there were more beyond that.”
He said “we both agreed that it wasn’t right that he should continue on as the Minister responsible for the National Broadband Plan and communications.
If he had agreed to Mr Naughten’s suggestion that the Taoiseach move him to another department or relieve him of his responsibility for the broadband plan people would be questioning that, Mr Varadkar said.
Mr Varadkar said perceptions do matter in the awarding of contracts and that Mr Naughten had left himself open to the perception of a conflict of interest, “the perception that somebody was given an inside track” in his meetings and private dinners with the head of the remaining bidder for the contract David McCourt. I did ask him had he been in any of the other CEOs’ houses and he hadn’t and therein lies the problem.”
He described Mr Naughten’s decision to resign as honourable and said he did not believe the former minister gained in any way.
“But perceptions actually do matter. It’s not just as simple as optics.”
He said “when it comes to the awarding of a contract, particularly of this size importance and cost, it has to be seen to be all above board as well.”