Tuesday 17 September 2019

Denis Naughten did not jeopardise National Broadband Plan bidding process, review finds

  • Opposition parties unlikely to allow Government proceed with plan without a fight
  • More than 500,000 homes and businesses waiting for high-speed broadband in their area
Denis Naughten. Photo: PA
Denis Naughten. Photo: PA

Kevin Doyle & Laura Larkin

A review of the bidding process for the National Broadband Plan has found ex-minister Denis Naughten did not jeopardise it – but opposition parties are unlikely to allow the Government proceed with the plan without a fight.

The study by independent auditor Peter Smyth has found that private meetings Mr Naughten had with businessman David McCourt did not amount to an attempt to interfere with the process.

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

While carrying out his review, Mr Smyth had to rely heavily on the accounts provided to him by the ex-minister and businessman.

But he concludes that neither Mr Naughten nor Mr McCourt were in a position to influence the bidding process in favour of Granahan McCourt.

The report states that “the fact that the former Minister met with Mr McCourt (or representatives of the other bidders) outside the process is not in and of itself a basis for finding that the procurement process has been tainted”.

Mr Smyth notes that in the absence of minutes and notes for a number of those meetings he is reliant in the statements of the former minister, Mr McCourt and other parties for verification, “therefore I cannot unequivocally state that the State-led intervention under the NBP was not discussed at the meetings” between Mr Naughten and Mr McCourt.

However based on his ongoing review of the process and considerations of the workings of the process Mr Smyth states that he is "satisfied that neither the former minister nor Mr McCourt had the opportunity to influence the conduct of the tender process on favour of Granahan McCourt or otherwise”.

The report also notes that Mr Naughten's decision to resign “insulates the process from any apparent bias created by his engagements with Mr McCourt”.

More than 500,000 homes and businesses are waiting on the NBP to bring high-speed broadband to their area.

Former minister Denis Naughten this evening urged TDs not to abandon the National Broadband Plan for political reasons.

“I welcome the conclusion of Mr Smyth’s report not only for myself but for the 1.2 million people in rural Ireland waiting to be connected to high speed broadband,” he said.

The Roscommon TD goes on to “earnestly ask” the Government and Opposition parties to “carry through on the significant body of work that I completed during my time as Communications Minister to ensure that every home and business in Ireland gains access to high speed broadband without any further delay”.

He also highlighted a section of Mr Smyth’s report which notes that there rules underpinning the NBP do not “expressly prohibit engagements” between bidders and the department.

“As Minister my job required me to meet investors from all sectors under the remit of my former Department whether they were investors from telecoms, renewable energy, environment or natural resources. These investors are the men and women who provide jobs in our country,” he said.

Mr Naughten said his “sole objective” was to deliver “much promised broadband to rural Ireland”.

“I am proud of the work that I achieved which has ensured that over one third of rural homes will, by next June, have access to up to 1000mbps pure fibre broadband. I hope that once this procurement process has been completed that the remaining homes, farms and businesses will get access to this technology.

“This should now be the only goal of our Government and members of Dáil Éireann at this point and I urge colleagues not to succumb to those who want to make a political issue of the NBP for their own ends and not that of the Country as a whole,” he said.

However, Opposition TDs are unlikely to fully accept the findings of the review which is partly redacted.

Read more: National Broadband Plan report: what happens now and what rollout obstacles still remain?

Social Democrats co-leader Catherine Murphy has already questioned why there are rules in place for bidding process if they are not carefully followed.

“The Taoiseach, and indeed many other Government Deputies, when they learned of Mister Naughten’s repeated meetings with David McCourt, accepted his actions were inappropriate and had an impact on the NBP process. For the report to find different is ridiculous,” she said.

Labour Party leader Brendan Howlin has claimed it would be “reckless” for the Government to proceed with the plan.

“People in rural Ireland are anxious to have access to high-speed broadband, but no one wants to be ripped off. We cannot stand over an unsafe situation where ministerial protocols are being ignored with a real risk to the taxpayer of being sued,” he said.

Mr Howlin added: “If necessary, a new tendering process, including State companies, could be run within months given all of the preparation that has already been done in this process. That is a small price to pay to avoid over-paying for a network that will be outside of public control and where there is a risk of the State being sued for allowing such a compromised process to continue.”

Mr Varadkar said there are no doubts about the status of the €500m bid to install broadband to half a million homes and businesses in rural parts of the country - and that other necessary assessments of the project can continue.

The Taoiseach told Fianna Fáil leader, Micheál Martin, that this remaining consortium in the tender process for the National Broadband Plan had changed its composition.  But Mr Varadkar insisted that it is not a new consortium.

It was on that basis, Mr Varadkar said: “The bid still stands”.

Mr Martin pointed to the report’s note that Mr Naughten had 12 meetings, 18 phones calls and five dinners with the businessman.

He said the minister and the bidder were talking about the level of subsidy that should be paid, with some estimates putting it at €3bn.

Speaking in the Dáil in the wake of the publication of the report, Taoiseach added that the resignation of Mr Naughten as Communications Minister, and which came on October 11 last, had helped keep the process secure. 

His departure meant that any concerns about his involvement or his relationship with the lead bidder “no longer affect this process”.

Mr Naughten resigned amid controversy over contacts he had with American businessman David McCourt leading the Granahan McCourt consortium which is the sole remaining bidder for the plan to provide broadband to some 500,000 homes and businesses without high speed broadband access.

Mr Varadkar argued that the Government had improved broadband access in recent years moving it from 50pc of homes and premises to a current level of of 75pc.  He hoped this project would complete the extension to the final quarter of the country.

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