Business Technology

Wednesday 18 September 2019

Broadband plan 'not undermined' by minister meeting businessman - review

Stock image / PA
Stock image / PA

Kevin Doyle and Adrian Weckler

MINISTERS are optimistic that a review of the bidding process for the National Broadband Plan will not further stall its roll-out.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Communications Ministers Richard Bruton have received the report compiled by independent auditor Peter Smyth over the past month.

It is understood that the report does not find that the National Broadband Plan was undermined or compromised by private meetings between former minister Denis Naughten and businessman David McCourt.

Mr McCourt is the head of the only consortium left in the running for the valuable contract to rollout broadband across rural Ireland.

It was expected that ministers would be briefed on the review’s contents yesterday – but they were instead told that people named in the document need to see it first.

Mr Varadkar made a brief statement at Cabinet explaining that the Attorney General felt it was appropriate to ensure that all individuals affected should see the report before its details are made public.

The delay caused “worry” among some minister who view the roll out of high-speed broadband to more than 500,000 homes and businesses as essential to Fine Gael’s re-election chances.

However, there is an expectation that the project had gone “too far to fail”.

A separate source described the report as “neutral to good”.

In the Dáil, Mr Varadkar said the final document would have to “go through due process”.

“It is with the Attorney General now.  Parts of it may need to be redacted for commercial reasons and the people named in it have to be given an opportunity to comment or reply,” he said.

“We anticipate publishing it as soon as possible.  I anticipate that being in a matter of days rather than weeks but it was not actually discussed at Cabinet because we have to follow due process first.”

It is understood Mr Naughten and Mr McCourt are among a small number of people who will be supplied with the report in advance of its publication.

The ex-minister declined to comment last night.

He has previously insisted that he did not jeopardise the process during a series of meetings with the head of Granahan McCourt.

Mr Naughten was a guest a dinner hosted by the businessman in New York last July, and also attended another dinner at his home in Co Clare.

On another occasion he arranged for Mr McCourt and his daughter to visit Leinster House.

He was forced to resign last month after losing the confidence of the Taoiseach.

However, in his resignation speech Mr Naughten suggested he was pushed out because Mr Varadkar was more concerned about “optics than fibre optics”.

“I assure the House that the decisions I took as the former Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment were taken solely in the interest of bringing high-speed broadband, communication services and mobile services to every single home, business and citizen in this country, and for no other reason whatsoever,” he said at the time.

In recent weeks Granahan McCourt submitted their final proposals and costings for the project.

Even before details of Mr Naughten’s meetings emerged, their consortium was the only remaining bidder after other companies, including Eir, dropped out earlier in the process.

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