Tuesday 15 October 2019

Ministers to ignore €3bn broadband cost fears

Robert Watt from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins
Robert Watt from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins

Cormac McQuinn and Kevin Doyle

Fine Gael ministers believe they must press ahead with the €3bn National Broadband Plan (NBP) to avoid a drubbing in the upcoming local and European elections.

That is despite a warning by one of the country's most senior civil servants that the project is not value for money and intense Opposition pressure over the controversial rollout of high-speed internet to rural areas.

However, amid fears of the impact scrapping the plans now would have on Fine Gael's election prospects, ministers are determined the NBP must go ahead.

One senior minister told the Irish Independent that voters are demanding to know when they are getting the long-promised broadband.

"They really don't care how much it's going to cost as long as they get it because children can't do their homework... It's needed for everything."

They said Fine Gael couldn't afford to take a hit in the local elections if the plan was abandoned after the promises that had been made to rural Ireland.

Another minister said the Government is in a scenario where they're "damned if you do and damned if you don't".

They said that if the decision is taken that the NBP cost is too much, they will be accused of stalling the project and the "Opposition would get a lot of mileage out of it" during the upcoming elections.

They said if it goes ahead the Government will be accused of a cost overrun like the National Children's Hospital.

"I think there's no choice but to press ahead," the minister added.

Another senior minister said: "Broadband has to happen. It would be like leaving people in the dark and that's unimaginable now. "Let's just get on with it. Fianna Fàil will try to make out that it's loads of money - but let's see them tell people it's not happening."

It was revealed in the 'Sunday Independent' that Department of Public Expenditure secretary general Robert Watt has told Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe that the NBP should be abandoned.

Fianna Fáil and Labour have demanded the Government publish the advice it received from public expenditure officials on the costs of the NBP.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin lashed out at what he claimed was "eight years of failure" to deliver broadband to rural Ireland and a "botched" procurement process which sees just one bidder left in the competition.

Labour leader Brendan Howlin said that ultimately ministers make decisions but it must be with "complete and frank advice".

"We can't go back to what happened in the run-up to economic crash where the Government is only told what they want to hear," he said.

A spokesperson for Mr Donohoe said: "The Government will make a transparent decision on this issue."

A spokesperson from the Department of Communications said the goal is to deliver broadband to 540,000 premises in rural Ireland. "We have to make sure we do it right. The Government will make its decision on this important issue soon, in the full knowledge of the cost of the project and the alternative options."

Irish Independent

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