Friday 17 August 2018

John Downing: Opposition parties unlikely to 'bet the farm' on Naughten row

Stock picture
Stock picture
John Downing

John Downing

A renowned mandarin – no longer active in the national political parish – often summed up certain political rows as “awkward but not fatal”.

The former official’s words seem a fit for this strange row involving Communications Minister Denis Naughten. He is in a tricky spot right now, but his two decades at Leinster House will tell him these troubles will pass.

Certain opposition TDs will continue to challenge Naughten’s insistence he said “nothing wrong or inappropriate” during a phone call with a public relations executive about the proposed merger between Independent News & Media (INM), which publishes this newspaper and other leading titles, and Celtic Media ,which runs a large group of regional newspapers.

Yes, Mr Naughten told the Dáil he had discussed referring the potential deal to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI), which also has a newspaper remit, to public relations person, Eoghan Ó Neachtain, who is a former government press secretary, but was representing INM. The phone call details have emerged as a by-product of a High Court application by the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement (ODCE) to have inspectors appointed to investigate company law issues at INM.

The details tell us the conversation between the Naughten and Ó Neachtáin, were relayed to INM’s largest shareholder, Denis O’Brien, in November 2016. The information was sent via Ó Neachtáin’s boss, Nigel Heneghan, who communicated first with INM’s then-chairman, Leslie Buckley, who on-passed to Mr O’Brien.

The OCDE’s contention is the move may amount to “inside information” and potentially a breach of stock market rules. Those legal issues will continue their own way through the legal process.

The more immediate question is what will the Opposition parties actually do. Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin, Labour, Solidarity-PBP and the Social Democrats, were all active in putting the Taoiseach and Naughten on the spot about the issue.

Denis Naughten, a man who never stood on ceremony and was not affected by the trappings of ministerial office, came into the Dáil, spoke and fielded questions for about 50 minutes. In essence, he said he might not be so casual about such phone conversations again.

But he had expressed a personal view on an issue to Eoghan Ó Neachtain. There was no attempt to influence the process as it went on, and in the event the big merger never happened anyway.

Clearly, this is an issue the opposition will continue to pursue. But the key question is this: Will they demand Naughten’s resignation?

Answer: most unlikely. To do so would be to precipitate an early election that nobody particularly wants right now.

The political scars are still visible after the forced resignation of Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald last November. We are set to have a general election within 12 months, one way or another.

But in the corridors of Leinster House, the view is that there should be no immediate rush.

Irish Independent

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

Also in this section