Friday 14 December 2018

'The dog ate my homework' - Denis Naughten's excuse over lobbyist call generates more criticism

Communications Minister Denis Naughten. Picture: Steve Humphreys
Communications Minister Denis Naughten. Picture: Steve Humphreys
John Downing

John Downing

COMMUNICATIONS Minister Denis Naughten has been accused of producing a very poor excuse for his handling of contacts with a key political lobbyist.

Fianna Fáil deputy leader, Dara Calleary, has again challenged the Government to say whether it accepted Minister Naughten’s argument that he simply expressed “a personal view” when he told the lobbyist that he would refer a particular case to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland.

Mr Calleary said the incident, involving the prospect of Independent News & Media (INM) taking over a regional newspaper group called Celtic Media, showed Fine Gael “engaging in old-style cronyism” which they claimed to shun.

“Is it not ‘the dog ate my homework’ type of excuse?” Mr Calleary said of Mr Naughten’s Dáil explanation on Wednesday. The Fianna Fáil TD said it was not acceptable that the Minister could claim to be acting in a personal capacity.

Replying for the Government, Tánaiste Simon Coveney said he had confidence in Mr Naughten whom he had known for 20 years. Mr Coveney insisted that he knew Mr Naughten to be “straight.”

Mr Coveney rejected arguments by Sinn Féin’s deputy leader, Pearse Doherty, that the Government was “turning a blind eye” while well-placed people took advantage of their privileged access to Government.

The Tánaiste said Mr Naughten had acknowledged that it would have been better if he had never spoken with the lobbyist concerned. He said this was also the Government view of things.

But he said the controversy needed to be put in context. He said the lobbyist concerned had informed the Minister that the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission had approved the INM plan to buy Celtic Media. He said Minister Naughten “gave a view” that the issue was likely to be moved on to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) which also has some supervisory powers over newspapers.

Mr Coveney said Mr Naughten also stressed that he would follow his officials’ advice on the issue – and this was what he did throughout the handling of the matter.

The Sinn Féin deputy leader said the Tánaiste’s response was not adequate. “This stinks to high heaven. This is about the old boys’ club,” Mr Doherty said.

Labour leader, Brendan Howlin, who served in three different governments, said a Minister cannot choose to be a private citizen in the middle of exercising a government function. Mr Howlin demanded to know what other contacts there were on the issue.

Mr Coveney insisted that Minister Naughten had not given any special or confidential information to the lobbyist. He said anyone following the story would know it was likely the case would go to the BAI for further assessment.

Addressing the Seanad this afternoon, Mr Naughten said he “sincerely regrets” the phone conversation with Mr Ó Neachtain.

“I sincerely regret expressing my view on that at the time,” he said, while insisting that he didn’t say anything inappropriate during the call.

“I’m absolutely clear that I said I would abide by the recommendation of my officials,” he said.

Mr Naughten said he is an “extremely accessible” minister and his mobile number is online.

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