Thursday 24 October 2019

Donohoe admits 'risk' but insists it must go on

Minister pins reputation on 'all or nothing' decision for roll-out

Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Kevin Doyle and Philip Ryan

Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe pinned his reputation on an 'all or nothing' approach to providing broadband when asking colleagues to overlook the "unprecedented risk" attached to the €3bn project.

During his contribution to a four-hour Cabinet meeting, Mr Donohoe actively went against the damaging advice of his most senior civil servants.

Notes, seen by the Irish Independent, show he argued the Government could not reduce the cost by leaving the country's most remote homes outside the scope of the National Broadband Plan (NBP).

"A national plan that does not deliver 100pc coverage is not a national plan," he said.

Mr Donohoe provided ministers with a six-page letter from the Department of Public Expenditure which warned them not to take "a massive leap of faith".

However, he made the potentially career-defining decision to completely go against his Secretary-General, Robert Watt.

A massive political row is now brewing over the advice provided by Mr Watt, with some ministers privately claiming he set out to damage the Government.

Mr Donohoe and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar were last night forced to publicly declare their confidence in his work.

In his lengthy dismissal of the broadband plan, Mr Watt listed a string of projects which could be delayed in order to provide funding for broadband.

These included 2,000 social housing units, water treatment schemes in Tralee and Kerry, the Sligo Western Distributor Road and the upgrade of the Dunkettle Interchange.

He also suggested schools, ambulance bases and primary care centres would be impacted.

However, Mr Donohoe told reporters none of these projects will be delayed for a minute because of broadband.

He admitted the Government will have to set aside substantial money for broadband between 2021 and 2025.

"The ability is there to deliver additional capital funding for the NBP," the minister said.

He also dismissed other fears raised by Mr Watt, including the idea that by 2026 the project will have failed and the State will be left with "a 'stranded' obsolete asset".

"All in all, I find it difficult to see how such a contract represents value for money for the State or is in the best interests of the taxpayer," Mr Watt wrote.

"I also find it difficult to believe that a convincing case can be made for this project, when these facts emerge."

Mr Donohoe said last night that he had "received lots of different advice in relation to this".

He acknowledged that his department is fundamentally at odds with his own thinking - but insisted Mr Watt is "one of the most talented people I've worked with".

"I have a very, very close working relationship with him and look forward to that continuing in the future."

Speaking to the Irish Independent in The Hague, Mr Varadkar said he did not always agree with Mr Watt but has "immense respect" for him.

"A government where ministers always agree, where officials don't raise concerns and don't raise alarms, is in the group-think space," he said.

Asked whether he accepted there is "unprecedented risk" attached to the project, Mr Donohoe said: "I think given the scale of this technology and the number of citizens affected by it, it would be difficult to find another precedent for a decision like this."

He described the risks as "inherent" but said he could not allow "one group of citizens who have access to high-speed broadband and another group of citizens who don't".

"There was no certainty at all that we would come up with an option that was also capable of delivering a universal service to our citizens and doing it in a way that is going to be any cheaper."

Irish Independent

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