Wednesday 22 May 2019

Denis Naughten will support Government on 'case by case basis' after resignation

  • Communications Minister resigns over National Broadband Plan controversy
  • It's 'clear to me the Taoiseach does not have confidence in me' - Naughten
  • 'He left himself open to a conflict of interest' - Varadkar
  • Naughen will support Government on a 'case-by-case' basis
Denis Naughten has resigned as Communications Minister. Photo: Tom Burke
Denis Naughten has resigned as Communications Minister. Photo: Tom Burke

Kevin Doyle, Cormac McQuinn and Laura Larkin

TAOISEACH Leo Varadkar has revealed that Denis Naughten met with the head a of a company bidding for the National Broadband Plan on four more occasions, including a private dinner in the businessman’s home.

In the Dáil Mr Varadkar outlined interactions between Mr Naughten and David McCourt, the US businessman involved in the tender for the broadband plan.

Mr Naughten’s shock resignation as Minister for Communications has left the Government reeling this evening and moved the country closer to a general election.

Tonight, Mr Naughten said he would support the government on a “case by case” basis.

When asked on 'Six One News' if he would continue to offer “unwavering” support for the government, Mr Naughten said: “As and when issues come up I will deal with them on a case by case basis.”

The Taoiseach has made a brief statement to the Dáil in which he explained that Mr Naughten had asked whether he could be reshuffled to a different Cabinet portfolio in order to protect the project.

David McCourt, chief executive, Granahan McCourt. Photo: Adrian Weckler
David McCourt, chief executive, Granahan McCourt. Photo: Adrian Weckler

However, Mr Varadkar asked him to consider his position, leaving the Roscommon TD to resign.

Education Minister Richard Bruton is to temporary take charge of the Department of Communication.

It has now emerged that Mr Varadkar and Mr Naughten met yesterday to discuss a controversial meeting in New York and a lunch in Leinster House.

Mr Naughten then phoned the Taoiseach shortly before midnight to reveal another meeting.

However, it wasn’t until today that Mr Varadkar learned of three further meetings which no officials were present at and no minutes were taken.

“He left himself open to a conflict of interest,” Mr Varadkar said, adding that it “could have brought the process into question”.

“Ultimately as minister he had a decision-making role,” Mr Varadkar said.

“I believe that in resigning Denis has acted in the public interest.”

The Taoiseach said he had nothing but respect for his former colleague but as leader of the country had to make difficult decisions.

“My job as Taoiseach must always be to put the public interest first,” he said.

Minister of State Pat Breen has tonight explained that he knows Mr McCourt in a personal capacity as they live 10 miles apart in Co Clare.

Fending off criticism for organising a dinner involving the businessman and Denis Naughten, he said: “I have no role in the National Broadband Plan, its rollout or its procurement.”

In his role as Minister with responsibility for Trade, Employment, Business, EU Digital Single Market and Data Protection, Mr Breen met the businessman in an official capacity on three occasions.

However, the have gotten to know each on “a personal basis” also, he admitted.

Mr Breen said he visited his home “several times and met him on other occasions in a private capacity”.

“Last year, on the request of Mr McCourt, I asked Denis Naughten, then Minister for Communications, if he would like to come to a dinner in Mr McCourt’s house. Mr McCourt’s wife also attended the dinner. To my knowledge, the National Broadband Plan was not discussed at the dinner,” the minister said.

Mr Naughten addressed the controversy over the National Broadband Plan earlier this afternoon, saying it's “clear to me the Taoiseach does not have confidence in me”.

He had come under under massive pressure in recent days over his contacts with the head of the bidding team for the National Broadband Plan contract.

Delivering a statement to the Dáil Mr Naughten said his absolute priority has been to deliver broadband to 540,000 households "no more, no less”.

He insisted there was no interference in the procurement process by him.

He told the Dáil that he met Mr Varadkar and it was clear that the Taosieach did not have confidence in him.

Mr Naughten said: “I'm now left in the impossible, stark position that a politician never wants to find themselves in. Do I make the decision myself to resign or wait for that decision to me be made for me?

“And what do I do against the backdrop of the Opposition not having sought my resignation?

“If I was a cynic, which I'm not I believe the outcome is more about opinion polls than telecoms poles.

“It's more about optics than fibre optics.

“The fact is as minister I have to meet investors whether it's in the telecoms or energy or any other sector. These are the people who provide jobs in this country. That is the context in which I had meetings with Mr McCourt and that's how it should be seen.

“The reality is David McCourt has met with every single Communications minister, has met several members of this government and members of the opposition in recent years.

“For my family, for my constituents and more importantly for the 1.1m people who are waiting for this essential service, a vital service to ordinary people in rural Ireland I have given An Taoiseach my resignation.

“I wish my Cabinet colleagues well and I would ask most of all that the NBP process is allowed to reach its conclusion over the next few weeks for the 1.1m people in rural Ireland who need this infrastructure now more than ever.

“Can I finally assure the house that the decisions that I took as the former minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment were taken solely in the interests of bringing high-speed broadband, bringing communications services mobiles services to every single home, business and citizen in this country and for no other reason whatsoever.”

Mr Naughten left the chamber after his speech leaving opposition TDs shocked.

Junior minister in the department, Fine Gael TD Seán Kyne said he was “shocked” by his Independent colleague's statement.

He praised Mr Naughten's energy and commitment to rural Ireland and said he shared his frustration at the "long and difficult” broadband roll-out process.

Mr Kyne said: “It’s been a privilege to work with him” and added that he knows the pressure he was under.

He wished Mr Naughten well on behalf of the government and said: “I certainly feel for him at this moment as a colleague and friend”.

Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl said it was a “sad occasion" and that Mr Naughten is decent, committed and a “man of integrity”.

Labour Party Leader Brendan Howlin initially asked that the session be suspended as there was no longer a minister in situ.

However, several statements were made in the aftermath of the shock resignation.

Fianna Fáil’s Timmy Dooley said “nobody on this side of the house” called for the resignation of Mr Naughten and he expressed sympathy for Mr Naughten.

“What we sought was to shine a light on a process that was... effectively fatally flawed and fatally wounded,” he said.

Mr Howlin, said the speech was one the “likes of which I haven’t heard before”, comparing it to the resignation speeches often heard in the House of Commons.

He said the very telling phrase used by the minister when saying that while nobody in Opposition had called for him to step down, he believed the Taoiseach did not have confidence in him “and his assessment that that was more to do with opinion polls than poles” [that would bring broadband to rural areas] was a “very telling phrases from a member of the Government up to that point in time” said.

In his speech Mr Naughten outline his achievements as minister for Communications, Climate Action and the Environment.

These included the establishment of a Climate Action Fund with an allocation of €500m. He also said he introduced incentivised pricing for waste-disposal and a funding package for more than 400 anti-dumping initiatives around the country.

He said he established the mobile phone and broadband taskforce, led the government response to online safety, and secured a rescue package for An Post.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said it's a “difficult and sad day” for Mr Naughten but said his party had raised “legitimate issues” about the roll-out of the broadband plan.

He argued that very little progress has been made and tendering has been “tortuously slow”.

He claimed Mr Naughten would have been the ultimate decision maker in the process as he would have been bringing the memo on recommendations on the preferred bidder to Cabinet.

Mr Martin said office-holders have to be “insulated” from any perception of favouritism or being open to lobbying or canvassing.

He said the Dáil has now been made aware of a further series of meetings with Mr McCourt.

Mr Martin said that when there was a briefing on the National Broadband Plan by Department officials after the 2016 election they were “at pains to point out the sensitivity of the bid”.

He said: “that’s why many of us were flabbergasted” that Mr Naughten had met the lead member of the consortium.

Mr Martin said: “It’s a very difficult day personally for Denis Naughten but given what you’ve said I think he took the right decision”.

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald questioned the Government’s ability to continue its work in the wake of the resignation.

She said the Taoiseach had made the right decision in not standing by Mr Naughten.

Ms McDonald told the Dáil the “very cosy nudge and wink politics” is clearly “alive and well”.

She also questioned whether Mr Varadkar was going to take action against junior business minister Pat Breen.

The Clare TD was identified by the Taoiseach as the person who organised the dinner in Mr McCourt’s home.

In a statement the Independent Alliance, including Transport Minister Shane Ross, said that in light of the evidence they support the decision of Mr Naughten to resign.

“We would like to express our appreciation for all the good work Deputy Naughten has done as Minister and we wish him well in the future,” they said.

Solidarity TD Paul Murphy raised questions about the government's ability to remain in office.

He said the National Broadband Plan is a “fiasco" that should be halted.

He added: “The other fiasco that now should be put out of its misery in my opinion is the government. The government now has no effective majority.”

Mr Murphy said: “In my opinion this Dáil should now pass, as quick as is possible, the abortion legislation and then it should be dissolved.

"We should have an election and we should let the people decide.”

More to follow

Online Editors

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Also in this section