Wednesday 16 October 2019

Former finance minister Michael Noonan latest to be drawn into broadband lobbying row

Met with Enet executives: Ex-minister Michael Noonan. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Met with Enet executives: Ex-minister Michael Noonan. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Laura Larkin

Laura Larkin

The Government has dismissed calls to widen the scope of the review of the National Broadband Plan (NBP) after it emerged then finance minister Michael Noonan met with senior Enet executives in 2016.

The disclosure of the meeting comes after Denis Naughten resigned as communications minister over a series of private meetings with businessman David McCourt.

Mr McCourt is the lead figure in the sole remaining bidder for the €1bn broadband contract and a minority shareholder in Enet.

The meeting between Mr Noonan and Enet executives took place in December 2016 to discuss, among other issues, the company's management, maintenance and operation of 94 State-owned Metropolitan Area Networks (MANs).

Social Democrats TD Catherine Murphy claimed that the meetings disclosed in recent weeks show there "was almost an open-door policy in Government buildings for Enet and/or David McCourt".

"We need to understand the rationale for the former minister's decision to extend the MANs contract when he did," she said. Ms Murphy also said it was important to understand if that extension materially affected the price paid for the Enet stake in 2017.

The State-backed Irish Infrastructure Fund (IIF) bought a 78pc share in Enet last year and is set to acquire the remaining 22pc, subject to approval, buying out Granahan McCourt.

Ms Murphy called for the Smyth review of the NBP to be widened to include the extension of the MANs contract, but the Government has said this would not be appropriate "as the process auditor role only relates to NBP procurement".

The 2016 meeting was attended by Conal Henry, then chief executive of Enet, and was one of a number of meetings held with Limerick TDs, according to Enet. The NBP was not discussed, nor was the extension of the MANs contract.

The Department of Finance said ministers meet regularly with businesses as part of their role. A spokesman for Enet said the original contract included a built-in extension mechanism and "an extension was granted following a negotiation which included the normal and proper contractual steps being followed".

The spokesman said access to Government "is within the normal course of business and typical for organisations operating significant State-owned infrastructure".

Mr Noonan did not respond to queries. A spokesman for Mr McCourt said Granahan McCourt was not in a position to comment.

Irish Independent

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