Taoiseach is ‘satisfied so far’ over Naughten’s meetings with broadband bidder

Anger grows over Minister’s contacts with lead bidder for State-backed €500m plan

 

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said so far he is satisfied with the Minister for Communications’ explanation over his meetings with the lead bidder for the National Broadband Plan.

It emerged on Wednesday that Minister for Communications Denis Naughten paid for lunch for David McCourt, the chairman of Granahan McCourt, in Leinster House last April.

Mr McCourt’s company is in line to secure one of the biggest public contracts ever awarded by the State, worth in excess of €500 million, should it succeed in winning the tender.

Mr Naughten is due to deliver a 10-minute long defence of his actions at 3pm in the Dáil before he faces eight minutes of questions each from the seven Opposition groupings in the chamber. In all, the debate will last 75 minutes.

The Taoiseach said it was not unusual or wrong for the Minister to be engaging with industry. “In fact, that’s his job,” he told Virgin Media Television on Thursday.

“There’s a whole protocol around how the engagement should take place, that there should be officials there for example, that matters relating to that contract shouldn’t be raised, that it should be minuted and recorded. Denis is in the Dáil this afternoon, he’s going to clarify all of that.”

Mr Varadkar said he met with Mr Naughten on Wednesday evening. He said Mr Naughten has to come back to him with “a few more answers”, but when asked if he was satisfied on the matter, he said: “So far, yes.”

Mr Varadkar said he accepted how the optics are problematic and perception does matter “in politics and in business too”.

“But as I say Denis is going to be in the Dáil this afternoon and he’s going to clarify all of those aspects and I’d like to give him the opportunity to do that first,” he added.

Drip feed

One Cabinet member said the “drip feed of information” on meetings between Mr Naughten and David McCourt was “not helpful”.

Another said: “If he broke the rules, he’s in trouble.” The issue was described as the “second fool’s pardon he’s looking for”, a reference to a controversy earlier this year over contact between Mr Naughten and a lobbyist working for Independent News and Media.

Mr Naughten’s spokeswoman, however, pointed to comments from an official heading up the broadband procurement process who said contacts with Mr McCourt had “no bearing”.

Fianna Fáil communications spokesman Timmy Dooley said Mr Naughten should acknowledge the “inappropriateness” of the meetings.

The Minister, he added, should answer further Dáil questions on the issue, but that the issue was “bigger and wider” than the latest controversy, adding the broadband process was “fatally flawed”.

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 through a direct debit Oireachtas system, which deducts payments from salaries, his spokeswoman said.

Labour leader Brendan Howlin said the Minister has “really difficult questions to answer”, adding that he doesn’t believe the Taoiseach “gets it”.

“There was a time when Fine Gael had very high standards in relation to these matters,” he told RTÉ’s Sean O’Rourke Show on Thursday.

“It now seems that you can have a meeting with a bidder as long as you don’t directly discuss [the bid], [but] the person alongside you can discuss it . . . These are distinctions that Fine Gael would never have in the past accepted.”

Mr Howlin said it was quite clear that “this process is contaminated” and at the very least it will be subject to judicial challenge.

“Firstly we have to get a hold of what happened here, this is really murky,” he said.

“The consortium that’s there now is like Lanigan’s Ball, people stepping in and stepping out. We don’t know who specifically is going to deliver this broadband contract and the very first question we need to have answered from the Minister is who is going to deliver this contract, when are the people of Ireland going to see it and is it now subject to legal challenge, litigation and competition intervention by the European Commission. ”

Mr Howlin admitted if the make-up of the Government was along more traditional lines there would be “a very real likelihood” Mr Naughten wouldn’t be in a job.

He said he didn’t think there was a need for an election but there has to be accountability.

Dinner invitation

Mr Naughten was already in hot water for accepting a dinner invitation from Mr McCourt in New York in July, which he attended with several senior officials from his department.

When asked at a post-budget briefing on Wednesday if he had met Mr McCourt on any other occasion during the procurement process, Mr Naughten initially said he didn’t recall.

However, after being passed a handwritten note by a senior department official, Mr Naughten corrected his initial statement to say that he had attended a meeting in Dublin with Mr McCourt and the secretary general and the assistant secretary general of the Department of Communications in June.