The Irish Times view on the broadband report: Where next for the tender?
The National Broadband Programme has now been under way for six years and still we do not have a clear view of how the project will be delivered, or what it will cost
The outcome of the audit of the broadband process is convenient for the Government in that it concludes that meetings between the former communications minister, Denis Naughten (right, pictured with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar), and the leader of the sole remaining bidding consortium, David McCourt, were a “ cause for concern”, but that the tender process has not been contaminated. Photograph: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie
The outcome of the audit of the broadband process is convenient for the Government in that it concludes that meetings between former communications minister Denis Naughten and the leader of the sole remaining bidding consortium, David McCourt, were a “cause for concern”, but that the tender process has not been contaminated. This justifies Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s decision to put pressure on Naughten to resign, while also allowing the Government to continue with the process. Linking the two together, the auditor, Peter Smyth, said the Minister’s decision to resign “ insulates the process from any apparent bias created by his engagement with Mr McCourt”.
The audit of the National Broadband Programme (NBP) tender process has performed a useful function by showing that the process was not altered in any way to benefit McCourt’s consortium – led by his company Granahan McCourt – nor did Naughten have access to any information which would have been sensitive. However, this does not change the fact that the former minister should not have held the meetings outside the formal tender process with McCourt.
The auditor found that these contacts were of concern as they suggested “an ongoing engagement outsider of any formal need for them to engage with each other”. Smyth made it clear that he was reliant on the statements of Naughten, McCourt and others present “for verification of the purpose and content of these meetings”. He said he could not unequivocally state that the State-led intervention was not discussed at these meetings. And remember that at a meeting in June, it was Naughten who told the bidders that he could not bring a proposal to Government involving the level of subsidy – State support for the plan – which they were seeking.
Having closely examined the chronology of events and tender documents and records, the auditor concluded that “neither the former minister nor Mr McCourt had the opportunity to influence the conduct of the tender process in favour of Granahan McCourt or otherwise”.
So what happens next? The tender process will continue, but it is not yet clear whether the Government will approve the final outcome. Indications are that the scale of cost involved has risen very significantly. We do not know what level of State investment is now involved, nor do we have access to any cost-benefit analysis. Remember, too, that the State will not get final ownership of the network when completed.
Rural Ireland needs broadband as a vital tool both economically and socially.The NBP has now been under way for six years and still we do not have a clear view of how the project will be delivered, or what it will cost. It is yet another example of how organising and delivering major investment programmes seems beyond our capability.