Sunday 15 September 2019

'Innuendo and aspersions' could collapse National Broadband Plan, Denis Naughten warns

Viable bid: Former communications minister Denis Naughten. Photo: Tom Burke
Viable bid: Former communications minister Denis Naughten. Photo: Tom Burke
Laura Larkin

Laura Larkin

FORMER Communications Minister Denis Naughten has warned “innuendo and aspersions” around the National Broadband Plan could collapse the entire process.

Speaking in the Dáil, Mr Naughten said he did not discuss the procurement process for the significant State contract at private dinners with the businessman leading the sole remaining bid, David McCourt.

The Roscommon TD resigned from Cabinet after details emerged of a series of dinners he had with Mr McCourt. A recent report from Independent Auditor Peter Smyth found that the ex-minister has insulated the process from “apparent bias” by resigning.

Evaluation is continuing on the final bid for the contract. Mr Naughten urged deputies to let the evaluation team to “do their job”, describing them as some of the most capable people in Europe in respect of tender evaluation work.

“There has been a theme emerging in recent months of innuendo and aspersions, inside this Chamber and outside, questioning the capability of the last remaining bidder to deliver.

“It’s not for any of us to determine right now. That is the job of the 80-strong expert evaluation team.

“We have to ask what is driving this narrative and for what gain? To collapse the plan altogether perhaps? It may actually have that desired effect which will cause more heartache for the 1.2m people in rural Ireland.”

Mr Naughten also referred to pressure that was brought to bear following the withdrawal of Eir from the process, referencing one contribution which called for “emergency measures” to address the situation.

"I acted accordingly to keep the remaining bidder at the table. At no time did I interfere or try to interfere in the process to benefit any bidder,” he said.

As minister he was kept at arm’s length from the detail of the process he said, and did not have information that would not have been available to the bidders involved in the process.

“I can state that the procurement process was not discussed at any of the dinner engagements with Mr McCourt, furthermore Mr McCourt did not at any time canvass my support or seek to lobby me or influence me in regard to the procurement process,” he said.

“I want to state that I did not give pref access to any bidder in the process.”

Newly appointed Communications Minister Richard Bruton declined to be drawn on the approximate cost of the rollout of the National Broadband Plan.

Labour TD Seán Sherlock put the price tag of €3bn to him but Mr Bruton said he would not speculate on the final cost to the taxpayer and said evaluation is continuing on the bid and will be considered by Government who will then make a decision on whether to pursue the plan or not.

He said that should be “very soon” but did not offer a timeline.

The Dublin Bay North TD also said a Tweet posted by a senior official in his department should not have happened and will not happen again.

In a series of Tweets, Fergal Mulligan, one of the figures at the helm of the process, dismissed recent media reports regarding the roll out as "nonsense".

He also wrote: “A decision on the only game in town will hopefully be made in the next couple of weeks.”

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