Naughten defends meeting with broadband bidder during tender process
The Minister for Communications has defended attending a dinner hosted by the head of the bidding team for a key state broadband contract ahead of the tender’s outcome.
Denis Naughten has conceded that he was was told of possible changes to the National Broadband Plan bidding consortium at the dinner in New York, hosted by the Irish American businessman David McCourt.
Mr McCourt’s firm, Granahan McCourt, leads a consortium which is the sole remaining bidder for a state broadband contract valued at hundreds of millions of euro.
However, despite admitting that he spoke to Mr McCourt about the bidder’s intention to change its structure, Mr Naughten said that the two men “did not go into any detail” about it.
“That is not my role and David McCourt is well aware of that,” said Mr Naughten.
“He [Mr McCourt] did say that they may be putting in a request to the department for a change in the makeup of the consortium. I made it clear to David McCourt that we needed to insure that requests for documentation and information from my department were responded to in a timely manner.”
Mr Naughten said that there was nothing improper in attending a dinner held by Mr McCourt ahead of a decision on the National Broadband Plan tender contract.
“David McCourt has invested millions of euro on telecoms infrastructure in this country,” said Mr Naughten. “David McCourt is planning to spend a very significant amount of money on the rollout of broadband and infrastructure across this country. As the Minister for Communications, on an ongoing basis I would have investors from all over the globe seeking to meet with me in relation to investing in this country.”
The bidding consortium has shuffled its constituent parts several times over the last 12 months. Earlier this year, the UK utility giant SSE exited the consortium without stating why, while the British engineering specialist John Laing has also receded in recent months.
Opposition politicians have also sought to highlight the involvement of Actavo, an infrastructure construction firm controlled by the businessman Denis O’Brien. Executives from Mr McCourt’s bidding team have responded with the assertion that Actavo is one of the only infrastructure firms in Ireland capable of building out a telecoms network at the scale required under the National Broadband Plan.
Despite the exchange with Mr McCourt over a possible alteration in the makeup of the bidder consortium, Mr Naughten said that he was not aware that the changes has occurred.
“The first time that I knew about the makeup of this consortium was when I read it in a national newspaper,” he said. “This was an engagement between the consortium and the department. I have not been directly involved in this procurement process at any stage. The minister does not have a direct role of function in relation to this procurement.”
Mr Naughten said that the Granahan McCourt bid, which was submitted two weeks ago, is currently being assessed.
“What we need to do is to answer questions about whether this organisation has the capacity to deliver.”
Speaking in Brussels, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said that the issue was part of a “competitive dialogue”.
"I think Denis has given an explanation of that today, officials were present and... what's going on in terms of the national broadband plan is a competitive dialogue,” he said.