The Irish-American businessman David McCourt, who is the lead figure in the sole remaining bidder for the €1bn National Broadband Plan project, is to sell his shares in the consortium telecoms firm Enet.
The move is being done, he says, to "focus energy entirely" on the State-backed rural broadband rollout scheme through his company Granahan McCourt.
McCourt has also dismissed the controversy over meeting Communications Minister Denis Naughten, saying that as a major telecoms investor in Ireland over the years, he would have been "p****d off" if Naughten had declined to meet him.
And he described as "totally misleading" claims by critics of the National Broadband Plan procurement process that the businessman Denis O'Brien is now "part of the consortium".
McCourt's Enet shares are set to be sold to the Irish Infrastructure Fund, an investment vehicle that is backed by the state's Ireland Strategic Investment Fund. McCourt said that the move does not signal any retreat from the National Broadband Plan for him or for Enet.
"I want to focus all my time on national broadband," he said. "It doesn't make much sense to be a minority shareholder in Enet.
“It has no consequences for Enet’s participation in the National Broadband Plan (NBP), which is designed around the metropolitan area networks that Enet manages.”
McCourt said that the reason he invited Naughten and his officials to the July dinner in New York was to reassure them that a series of concerns that had arisen regarding the bid tender had been resolved.
“The dinner was prompted by me,” he said. “The minister’s department had brought up some concerns and wanted them resolved, saying that if they weren’t we were at risk.
“All I wanted to do was to make sure they knew that those issues were being resolved. If I couldn’t have got hold of the minister I would have called the Taoiseach to say that I understand the seriousness. It was important.”
According to minutes of the conversation between Naughten’s party and McCourt released by the Government, department officials were pressing for “a permanent, Irish-based, leadership position” within the consortium, a need for “streamlined decision-making processes” and the need for any changes within the consortium to be avoided “or, if necessary, to be kept to a minimum”. The officials also pressed for “the need for the necessary financing to be in place” by August 15.
All of these issues, McCourt said, have been met.
Details of the financing behind the consortium bid are still unclear, but the Sunday Independent understands that they will involve McCourt’s long-time business associate, Berkshire Hathaway board member Walter Scott.
“I think it’s wrong to make something out of it politically when I was doing my job, as was the minister,” said McCourt.
“I wanted them to know I was taking matters seriously. I would also have been a bit p****d off if the minister refused to meet someone spending €100m in telecoms in Ireland.”
McCourt also sought to downplay the involvement of businessman Denis O’Brien in the NBP process. O’Brien’s infrastructure engineering firm, Actavo, is to be a key contractor to the rollout bid. Actavo, formerly known as Siteserv, became caught up in the water charges controversy having been contracted by Irish Water to install water meters.
McCourt said that he had “absolutely not” spoken to O’Brien about the rural broadband contract or consulted with him about the bid.
“I’m telling you now that Denis O’Brien is not part of the consortium,” he said.
“It’s very misleading for people who want to score points to suggest he is. He owns one of about 40 sub-contractors we’re using, yes. But that’s like owning the company that looks after the windows or the doors.
“There are only two telecoms infrastructure firms in Ireland with the capacity and ability to build out a network of this scale and we’re using both of them, as well as a third infrastructure company we’re bringing in from the UK. We’ve had an incredibly rigorous tendering process. It has nothing to do with Denis O’Brien.”
The NBP aims to provide high-speed broadband to 540,000 rural homes and businesses