Tuesday 20 August 2019

'Blinkered approach' - Opposition TDs hit out at rural broadband plan

Catherine Murphy TD. Photo: Tom Burke
Catherine Murphy TD. Photo: Tom Burke
Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

OPPOSITION politicians have hit out at the government's plan for the roll-out of rural broadband claiming the announcement has happened now for electoral purposes.

The government has hailed the €3bn National Broadband Plan (NBP) and the appointment of the preferred bidder as the biggest investment in rural Ireland since electrification.

Social Democrats TD Catherine Murphy claimed there has been a flawed tender process and said the State will pay billions for the roll-out of a network that it ultimately won't own.

She accused the government of being prepared to ignore the advice of Department of Public Expenditure secretary general Robert Watt who warned that the project doesn't represent value for money.

Ms Murphy argued that the government is taking a "blinkered approach" to the NBP and claimed this is due to an "election season where Fine Gael are once-again prepared to sacrifice the public interest for their own electoral interests."

She added: "It is political cynicism and opportunism of the worst kind and one that will potentially leave us with a very expensive mistake to rectify in the future."

Fianna Fáil communications spokesman Timmy Dooley said the government's announcement had: "all the hallmarks of a PR exercise two weeks out from a local and European election".

Mr Dooley argued that the government effectively confirmed another delay in the NBP process.

He claimed it could take up to a decade for the process to be complete, pointing to a briefing which said that the company employed to build the NBP network would be retained in existence for ten years.

Mr Dooley was challenged on whether the plan should be scrapped and what he would have done differently.

He said: "You can’t scrap the roll out of high speed broadband".

He said he had been arguing as far back as 2016 that the funding model for the NBP was not the best method and that the State should have retained ownership of the network.

He said that he raised concerns when two previous bidders pulled out and called for a review of the process, claimed it had been "flawed", and that if he had been communications minister "we'd be in a very different position".

Mr Dooley claimed the government's plan is "poor" but added: "it’s their plan. It’s not of our making."

He also said: "It’s not an ‘I told you so’ but I think what we predicted has come to pass.

"The government should have seen the problems that existed along the way and they played into the Einstein theory of insanity, continue to do the same thing and expect a different outcome."

Fine Gael this evening responded to Fianna Fáil criticism over the  NBP, accusing the rival party of "flip-flopping" on broadband.

“This evening, Timmy Dooley has claimed the rollout will take ten years. Where is the evidence of this? Where is Timmy getting his figures from? Lets see him back up tangible evidence of this," Fine Gael parliamentary party chairman Martin Heydon said.

He added: “A total of 540,000 homes will have high speed broadband within seven years of the contract being signed this year."

Mr Heydon claimed that Fianna Fáil are "set against the roll out of broadband to rural Ireland".

He also hit back against claims by Mr Dooley that today's announcement was timed to come ahead of the local elections.

He said: “Timmy calls today’s decision an election stunt. That’s strange as just a few weeks ago, he was on his feet in the Dáil demanding that an announcement be made."

He quoted Mr Dooley as saying in March: "it is imperative that we reach a decision without delay".

Mr Heydon claimed: "Fianna Fáil make it up as they go along. Their position keeps changing but that shouldn’t surprise anyone.

"They demand a decision and then claim it is a stunt when a decision is made...

"Flip-flopping is his party’s only consistency and their roll-out on this continues unabated today," Mr Heydon added.

Sinn Féin communications spokesman Brian Stanley also pointed out how the announcement has been made "in the mouth of an election".

He said his party wants to see broadband rolled out but said there are "serious questions" about the project.

Mr Stanley argued that the costs have risen by "multiples" of the original estimate and said there has been "delay after delay" in the process and it could be another seven years before the roll-out is finished.

He said: "People are anxious for broadband but they’re also anxious to know that they’re going to get value for money and there are serious questions around this project".

He said Sinn Féin would have preferred if another model was used to implement the NBP saying it should be done by a semi-state entity like the ESB.

Labour leader Brendan Howlin accused Fine Gael of putting electoral politics before the public good.

He claimed: "The timing of this announcement is purely to influence the upcoming local and European elections.

"A contract hasn’t even been signed yet and the Government is simply announcing a Preferred Bidder in a situation where there only is one bidder."

He argued that the plan "flies in the face of official advice that it is poor value for money".

Mr Howlin claimed the whole process has been "badly handled from the outset". He said Labour's preference would be to ask the ESB to estimate the cost to provide rural broadband as a publicly-owned network.

He added: "Only a public network can guarantee rural Ireland affordable access to the Internet into the future.”

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