Wednesday 18 September 2019

Oil lobbyist with Fine Gael links sought private briefings on controversial climate bill

Ex-aide to Kenny and Varadkar texted committee chair repeatedly

Contact: Feargal Purcell asked to be ‘kept in the loop’ about the oil exploration bill by Hildegarde Naughton. Photo: Karen Morgan
Contact: Feargal Purcell asked to be ‘kept in the loop’ about the oil exploration bill by Hildegarde Naughton. Photo: Karen Morgan
Feargal Purcell
Hugh O'Connell

Hugh O'Connell

Enda Kenny's former spin doctor repeatedly asked the Fine Gael climate committee chair for details of private deliberations on a controversial bill to ban oil and gas exploration, the Irish Independent can reveal.

Text messages show how former government press secretary-turned-lobbyist Feargal Purcell contacted Hildegarde Naughton, the chair of the Oireachtas Climate Action Committee, a dozen times and sought details of the committee's private deliberations on legislation to ban fossil fuel exploration off the coast.

Mr Purcell, a senior director in Edelman who lobbies on behalf of the Irish Offshore Operators Association (IOOA), wanted a "read-out" of a private committee meeting and asked to be kept "in the loop" on the outcome of an internal committee vote.

Ms Naughton said she did not respond to Mr Purcell's requests for details about private committee meetings, refused to meet the IOOA. She said it was "inappropriate" to engage with lobbyists on behalf of the fossil fuel industry while considering the bill.

People Before Profit's Climate Emergency Measures Bill seeks to end all oil and gas exploration in Ireland. It has been the subject of intensive lobbying and the threat of legal action by the industry. The Government has opposed it on the grounds it could risk the State's energy supply.

The lobbying register records Mr Purcell trying to get a meeting with Ms Naughton "and to outline IOOA's position in relation to the bill and the importance of the industry's role in the transition to renewable energy".

But it does not record the dozen text messages sent to Ms Naughton between October 24 last and February 19 this year or the attempts to call her.

Ms Naughton said she spoke to Mr Purcell once by phone to inform him it would be inappropriate to meet, having already relayed this to the IOOA directly months earlier.

Mr Purcell followed this call up with a text to say he understood her position, but added: "Would really appreciate if you could keep me in the loop on dates and likely vote outcome if they change. Of [sic] any update that occurs to you."

He texted her again in December 18 to ask her what time a committee vote on the bill would be taken and again in January asking her for a "quick chat" before the end of the week. In January and February, he asked her for details on committee meetings held in private session.

On January 21, Mr Purcell texted Ms Naughton: "Any chance you can text me an outcome from today's meeting by any chance?" Another text on February 19 read: "Would be great if you could give me a read-out of today's meeting held in session."

Last night Mr Purcell defended the text messages. He said: "Lobbying, as stated on Lobbying.ie, is an essential part of the democratic process. Not all communication constitutes lobbying."

He said the texts were "requests for factual information, did not seek to influence the deputy, policy or the committee in its deliberations and are accordingly exempted under regulation 5(5)d of the Lobbying Act".

Mr Purcell worked as government press secretary for six years under Mr Kenny and briefly under Leo Varadkar before joining PR firm Edelman last year. He was given an exemption from the one-year "cooling-off" period that normally applies to public officials who become lobbyists.

In July, it emerged he met Mr Varadkar's head of policy John Carroll and discussed the bill. This meeting was recorded by Mr Purcell but not Mr Carroll.

Irish Independent

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

Also in this section