Richard Bruton admits 'no question of a Plan B' despite current process hanging by thread
Broadband is fast becoming the key battleground for a general election after newly-appointed Communications Minister Richard Bruton admitted there was "no question of a Plan B" despite the current process hanging by a thread.
Fianna Fáil has accused the Government of desperately trying to get a contract over the line in advance of an election - even if that deal is not in the long-term public interest.
Around 1.1 million rural residents are waiting for a decent internet connection, but Mr Bruton is still unable to put a timeline or cost on the project.
Mr Bruton told the Irish Independent that the Government was fully committed to delivering broadband to every home in the country. However, he warned that the cost will "definitely" be more than the €500m originally budgeted.
Reports have suggested the final bill could be closer to €3bn. Independent evaluators are due to deliver their assessment of the final bid from a consortium headed up by Granahan McCourt in the coming weeks.
Fianna Fáil's Timmy Dooley said he believes the group will not have the capacity to deliver one of the largest infrastructure projects in the history of the State.
He claims that given former minister Denis Naughten's private meetings with the company's chief, David McCourt, the process has been "hopelessly compromised".
"I think the Government just want to get it beyond the election," Mr Dooley said.
Broadband will be a central theme at the confidence and supply talks between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, alongside Brexit, housing and health.
Asked what assurance he could give Fianna Fáil on the issue, Mr Bruton said it should wait until the evaluation of the tender is complete before making any demands.
"Until we know the evaluation of this tender, which has been in gestation for a considerable time, I don't think we can make a political judgment.
"I don't think Fianna Fáil is going to condemn something before we have seen the proposition.
"That's an obligation of anyone who wants to see rural broadband delivered as quickly as possible," the minister said.
Over the weekend, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said the Government has been working on a 'Plan B' if the current process falls apart.
"There are alternatives. There's no option that's cheap or quick," he said.
However, Mr Bruton insisted there was "no question of a Plan B". Mr Naughten had hinted there was one - but the new officeholder dismisses the idea.
"I don't know what he said… We've gone through various gates in the tender process. You cannot go back having had someone in good faith go through a tender process. You have to complete that."
Fianna Fáil has proposed the Government should now open talks with semi-State entities and major telecoms companies about an alternative approach.