Saturday 21 September 2019

Leo Varadkar questions if Opposition is trying to 'scupper' broadband plan

Leo Varadkar (Michelle Devane/PA)
Leo Varadkar (Michelle Devane/PA)
Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar questioned if the Opposition is trying to “scupper” the National Broadband Plan (NBP) when he was challenged on the controversial project in the Dáil.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin quizzed the Taoiseach on when the NBP contact will be signed off on.

He also raised concern over changes that have occurred within the consortium that’s the last remaining bidder.

His questions came after the Irish Independent today reported that the NBP is to be fast-tracked in 2019 and a contract is expected to be signed in January.

The plan was hit by controversy after it emerged that former Communications Minister Denis Naughten had meetings and dinners with David McCourt, the businessman leading the last remaining consortium bidding for the contract.

A report by independent auditor Peter Smyth cleared Mr Naughten and Mr McCourt of improperly affecting the State tender process for the giant infrastructure project.

Mr Smyth also found that Mr Naughten was correct to resign last month in order to insulate the process from “apparent bias”.

The evaluation of the last remaining bid, led by Mr McCourt’s Granahan McCourt company is continuing.

Mr Martin asked Mr Varadkar if the contract will be signed in January.

He noted changes that have been made to the composition of the consortium since their bid in September 2017.

Mr Martin asked if the Government is satisfied that the consortium has the capacity to deliver the project.

Mr Varadkar restated the Government’s commitment to making sure the NBP happens.

He said that 75pc of premises now have access to high speed broadband and “I want us to get to 100pc as soon as possible”.

He said he couldn’t comment on behalf of industry and did not confirm when the contract will be signed.

Mr Varadkar said the final bid has been received by the Department of Communications and is now being evaluated.

He said: “We anticipate that the Government will be able to make a decision in the next few weeks as to whether we can accept that bid or accept that tender or not.”

Mr Varadkar again insisted that the last remaining bidder is not a new consortium.

He said: “It’s a little bit like Fianna Fáil. Your composition changes from time to time. You’re not the same people who were here three years ago or five years ago and from time to time your leader may change but you’re still the same Fianna Fáil.”

Mr Martin said that the private sector has delivered broadband to date, "not the Government”.

He said he asked a serious question about the make-up of the consortium.

He said: “Is it now the new norm that in a major bidding, tendering process organised by Government that the bidder can change at the last minute?

“There’s an uneasy silence about this Taoiseach. It’s been glossed over. It might not suit people to directly analyse and assess this.

“I believe it does actually raise very fundamental questions about how we go about tendering major state contracts.

“Anything up to half a billion in state subsidy is involved here. This isn’t about changing individuals”.

He asked: “Is it acceptable that a consortium changes at the eleventh hour?”

Mr Varadkar again insisted: “The leadership has changed and the composition has changed but it’s not a new consortium.”

He said it’s “unusual” that an ongoing tender was being discussed in Leinster House and he doesn’t remember similar conversations about the Children’s Hospital, or the building of motorways or schools.

He added: “What are the motivations of the Opposition here?

“Are they trying to undermine this?

“Are they trying to say things in this House under privilege which others may use to undermine the National Broadband [Plan]?

“Is their motivation, is their plan to actually try to scupper this project so that people in rural Ireland are denied the infrastructure they need?”

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