Wednesday 19 December 2018

TDs attack Naughten over broadband project dealings

It emerged on Wednesday that the communication minister had paid for a lunch with the man who is leading the sole remaining bid.

Minister for Communications Denis Naughten (PA)
Minister for Communications Denis Naughten (PA)

By Michelle Devane, Press Association  

The communications minister has come under increased pressure from the opposition amid claims that the State’s broadband tendering process had become contaminated by his alleged “inappropriate” actions.

Denis Naughten was criticised in the Dail on Thursday over his dealings with US businessman David McCourt, who is leading the sole remaining bid for a contract to roll-out high-speed broadband to more than 500,000 homes across the country.

It emerged on Wednesday that the minister had paid for a lunch for the businessman in Leinster house in April and the pair also had a meeting in June.

It follows revelations that Mr Naughten met Mr McCourt at a New York dinner in July.

Minutes of the New York meeting showed that a 10-minute discussion took place between officials from the Department of Communications and Mr McCourt.

According to the minutes, Mr McCourt addressed his remarks to a department official and not to the minister.

Labour leader Brendan Howlin said it was “inappropriate” for the minister to have any contact with a bidder during a procurement process.

“By meeting with the bidder the minister may well have contaminated the process, that’s to put it in its mildest. He has certainly opened it to legal challenge,” Mr Howlin said.

Sinn Fein’s Pearse Doherty said there were serious questions to be answered about the pair’s interaction.

The Donegal TD told the Dail: “[Mr Naughten] has said that he didn’t discuss the process in the dinner in New York, that he was at the table and that his officials were engaged in the discussion, and that is just simple unbelievable.”

Nothing that Denis told me this morning undermines my confidence in him Simon Coveney

Mr Doherty accused Mr Naughten of breaching his own protocols in respect to the tendering process.

“It is very clear that the minister breached his own rules. He says that he didn’t, but it is in black and white for everybody to see that he did,” the Donegal TD said.

Mr Doherty added that the tendering process had gone from “chaotic to quite frankly farcical” and had raising significant doubts over whether the consortium could deliver.

Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney said he had a brief conversation with the minister on Thursday morning.

“Nothing that Denis told me this morning undermines my confidence in him,” Mr Coveney said.

He added that the minister should be given the “time and space” to explain himself and “put the issue to bed”.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said on Thursday morning that he had full confidence in the minister’s position.

But when pressed on Virgin Media One’s Ireland AM programme about whether he was satisfied with Mr Naughten’s explanation, Mr Varadkar said: “So far, yes.”

Mr Varadkar said he had a meeting the minister on Wednesday evening to discuss the matter.

Mr Naughten was due to make a statement and take questions on the matter in the Oireachtas on Thursday afternoon.

Press Association

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