Sunday 26 May 2019

Fresh fears over delay in broadband plan as details of review yet to be pinned down

Taoiseach says organising Naughten-McCourt dinner 'not a resigning matter' for Fine Gael minister Breen

David McCourt leads the final consortium in process
David McCourt leads the final consortium in process

Laura Larkin and Kevin Doyle

Fears over the delay of the rollout of rural broadband are deepening as details of an independent review have not yet been pinned down.

The future of the plan - which will see broadband delivered to more than 500,000 rural homes - has been cast in doubt following the resignation of the communications minister, Denis Naughten.

He resigned amid concerns about private meetings he had with businessman David McCourt, who leads the final consortium left in the tender process.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has asked the independent process auditor to the procurement process, Peter Smyth, to compile a report on the process to date.

Last night, a Government spokesman said "the terms of reference and timeframe for that report will be finalised shortly, in consultation with Mr Smyth".

However, the spokesman said that the final tender is currently being evaluated and the report will be carried out "in parallel" to this.

Labour Party communications spokesperson Seán Sherlock said there is little political confidence in the independent review process - the reviewer will not have access to minutes of meetings held between Mr Naughten and Mr McCourt, as there are none.

He also said that he wants the terms of reference for the Smyth review to be published as soon as possible.

"If they don't put a sunset clause on the report the delivery of broadband could go well into the late 2020s at this stage," he said.

"We should have had a terms of reference by now, we're into a new week and it doesn't take that long to draw up terms of reference and if we're not seeing them by the end of this week, that's a sure-fire sign that the Government is playing for time on this issue."

Mr Sherlock said that other bidders will also want to examine the review in order to determine if there is a case to be answered.

But he said: "The big elephant in the room in relation to Peter Smyth is that he doesn't have access to minutes of meetings between Mr McCourt and Mr Naughten.

"How can he decide whether or not the process passes muster?"

He said Opposition TDs still have a number of questions to be answered on those meetings.

Social Democrats TD Catherine Murphy also urged that the review process not be strung out unnecessarily.

Meanwhile, Mr Varadkar has defended the junior minister who invited Denis Naughten to a private dinner at the home of David McCourt at the businessman's request.

The dinner occurred in July 2017 and was also attended by Junior Minister Pat Breen.

Asked about the involvement of Mr Breen, the Taoiseach said: "At that point there were a number of bidders still at play. But that's besides the point really.

"Ultimately the decision for whether it was appropriate for it to happen or not was Denis Naughten.

"Pat Breen, as Minister of State, has no role in the National Broadband Plan in any way.

"I'm sure in retrospect we can all see it was unwise - but a resigning matter, it is not."

Irish Independent

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