Varadkar’s qualified support for Naughten indicated trouble was afoot
Analysis: As a shocked Dáil listened to the TD resign thoughts turned to the future of an already precarious minority Government
Asked if he was satisfied with Denis Naughten’s explanations about the extent of his meetings with David McCourt, above, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar replied: “So far, yes.”
The first indications that Denis Naughten’s position in Government was in jeopardy came as Taoiseach Leo Varadkar toured broadcast studios early on Thursday to promote the budget.
On the couch on the Ireland AM couch on Virgin Media Television – formerly TV3 – Varadkar’s qualified support for Naughten indicated that trouble was afoot.
Asked if he was satisfied with Naughten’s explanations about the extent of his meetings with David McCourt, the chairman of Granahan McCourt, the lead bidder for the National Broadband Plan, the Taoiseach replied: “So far, yes.”
His verdict would change within hours. On the Ireland AM couch, Varadkar explained that he had asked Naughten to a meeting on Wednesday evening, which took place about 8.30pm to 9pm.
“We had a meeting, went through these issues, asked the kind of questions that you are asking me now and he’s come back to me with a few more answers.”
It emerged on Thursday that there was a follow-up phone call between the two shortly before midnight on Wednesday, but the accounts of both men differ on what was said.
In the Dáil, Varadkar said it was on this call that Naughten said he “had just remembered that he had a private dinner in McCourt’s home in 2017” organised by Pat Breen, the Fine Gael Minister of State.
Naughten maintains he told Varadkar of “at least” three other private dinners held with McCourt, on top of the dinner organised by Breen, on this call.
Another meeting was arranged between Naughten, Varadkar and their senior advisers around noon on Thursday – hours after had expressed support, if certainly qualified, in Naughten and defended him.
It was at this meeting that Varadkar says Naughten “informed me that he had at least three other private dinners with McCourt”.
“He had not informed me of these additional meetings either when we met yesterday or when we spoke last night,” the Taoiseach said.
Naughten laid out three options to deal with the problem: assigning responsibility for the National Broadband Plan to Sean Kyne, the junior minister in his department, or another Cabinet Minister; initiating an independent review of the broadband procurement process; and offering the Opposition a briefing on the procurement process.
Varadkar says Naughten also asked to be reshuffled to another portfolio, but Naughten himself did not disclose this. Either way, the Taoiseach rejected the scenarios and asked Naughten to reflect on his position.
It was also claimed by those close to Naughten that Varadkar said Fianna Fáil would likely call for his resignation in the period ahead anyway. This was denied by Government sources.
The meeting was described as “very difficult” and sources said Varadkar gave Naughten an hour to reflect. The Taoiseach is said to have accepted there were no doubts over Naughten’s integrity but that the optics were bad. Naughten questioned what purpose his resignation would serve.
But Naughten did not formally respond to Varadkar, and the first the Taoiseach knew that he was definitely resigning came when the Roscommon TD made his statement to a shocked Dáil. Thoughts turned to the future of the Cabinet and Government.
Sources were quick to downplay the prospects of Frances Fitzgerald returning to Cabinet and Leinster House speculation centred on Kyne being promoted to Cabinet. John Paul Phelan and Michael D’Arcy, both loyalists of Varadkar, are seen as outside bets.
Potential junior ministers
Independent TD Seán Canney was being touted for a junior ministerial position, while it was also speculated that another Independent, Noel Grealish, could join the government. Within Fine Gael, Noel Rock, Hildegarde Naughton and Alan Farrell were also being mentioned as potential junior ministers.
No matter who gets shuffled into ministerial posts, Government sources said the administration will continue, and pointed to one budget division which was won 63-36 earlier this week, albeit with Fianna Fáil abstentions.
Others question how long an already precarious minority Government fraying at the edges can last.