Varadkar welcomes Oireachtas inquiry into broadband plan

Taoiseach appeals to Opposition to have open mind about €5bn broadband deal

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar  said no matter when they announced the broadband plan, they would have been criticised – for electioneering or for burying it if they waited until after the local elections. Photograph:  Reuters/Francois Lenoir

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said no matter when they announced the broadband plan, they would have been criticised – for electioneering or for burying it if they waited until after the local elections. Photograph: Reuters/Francois Lenoir

 

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said he welcomes the possibility of an inquiry by the Oireachtas communications committee into the proposed national broadband deal.

Speaking in Paris, he said he had “questions and queries” himself when Minister for Communications, Richard Bruton, was tasked with assessing plans for nationwide broadband coverage last October and understood that others might entertain similar uncertainty.

“I would appeal to the Opposition not to say that they are refusing to back this now, to have an open mind on it,” he said of the €5 billion broadband deal.

If the committee recommended against the deal he said: “The legal answer is that this is a question for Government rather than the Oireachtas, but I also appreciate the political reality of this . . . I would like to have the support of the Dáil for this.”

Earlier in the Dáil, the Taoiseach rejected Fianna Fáil claims that the Government was electioneering and playing politics with taxpayers’ money over the announcement of the national broadband plan.

Mr Varadkar said “there is no electioneering going on when it comes to this issue”.

He said no matter when they announced the plan they would have been criticised – for electioneering or for burying it if they waited until after the local elections.

Digital divide

He told Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin: “I think the taxpayers’ money is well spent because it is going to end the digital divide.”

He said the terms of reference for an examination of broadband by the Oireachtas communications committee would have to be agreed by the major parties and there would have to be a “reasonable timeframe” in dealing with it.

Mr Martin said the Taoiseach had asked the Opposition to support the broadband plan in “election mode” and did not consult the Opposition before the plan was announced.

“You declared it to be an ambitious and expensive plan,” he told Mr Varadkar.

“But I would remind you it is not your money; it is the taxpayers’ money. And you are electioneering and playing politics with large sums of taxpayers’ money.”

Mr Martin questioned where the €500 million would come from that had to be found between this year and 2022 if the contract was signed.

“What projects will be shelved?” he asked.

“Over €1.5 billion has to be found now from the National Development Plan – over and above the €800 million already allocated for the plan,” he said.

This was in addition to the €385 million needed over the next three years for the national children’s hospital.

“There is no provision anywhere for this funding that we can see, despite asking very basic questions about where this funding will come from,” he said.

But the Taoiseach said there would be no budgetary impact this year and a “very limited impact in 2020”.

There would be an impact from 2021 onwards and Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe would outline that in the summer economic statement due shortly.

Mr Martin also asked if the Taoiseach still stood over the cost benefit analysis “when in the final version €1 billion was lost in the benefits and miraculously found in the costs”.

Separately in Paris, speaking on the expected visit of US president Donald Trump to Ireland, the Taoiseach said protocol dictated that the White House announce the visit if it is confirmed.

“If president Trump comes to Ireland, he will be treated with respect and given the welcome that his office deserves,” he said. “We have to rise above whoever happens to hold office, whether it’s there or here, and remember the really important relationship that exists between Ireland and America.”