Tense exchanges in Dáil as Taoiseach rejects allegations about 'contaminated' €500m broadband provision bid
The Taoiseach has defended Communications Minister Denis Naughten’s meeting with a US businessman who was bidding to provide rural broadband potentially worth up half a billion euro.
In tense Dáil exchanges Fianna Fáil leader, Micheál Martin, said incidents such as this had in the past led to tribunals of inquiry being set up. The Taoiseach hit back accusing Mr Martin of making false allegations in the Dáil against himself and ministers which he later did not withdraw despite these claims being shown as false.
Mr Martin had said that the meeting between Minister Naughten and businessman, David McCourt, in New York in July of this year had effectively “contaminated” the bidding process for the upgrade of rural broadband. He said the investment was potentially worth up to €500m in taxpayers’ money.
The Fianna Fáil leader said the meeting went ahead in a social situation when the Communications Minister was not accompanied by the officials dealing with the tender process. Mr Martin insisted that the Communications Minister should have been “insulated” from the tendering process as the bidder was clearly trying to gain advantage.
“He was canvassing, he was lobbying … and canvassing disqualifies,” Mr Martin said.
“He should not have met David McCourt – do you accept that?” the Fianna Fáil leader added.
The Taoiseach said the Government had set ambitious targets for providing rural broadband and the project was among the biggest ever investment in the country’s history. He insisted that the Communications Minister had no role in deciding the tender – his job was to supervise timelines and other details and relay reports to Government.
Mr Varadkar said Minister Naughten met the Irish-American businessman in New York at a dinner hosted by the McCourt family who have a history of investment in Ireland creating hundreds of jobs. There was a 10-minute “administrative discussion” during which the tender itself was not discussed.
Mr Martin rejected arguments about an “administrative discussion” and he cited four points recorded as being covered in the encounter. “This is the meat – this is the god-damn meat of the bid,” he insisted.
The Fianna Fáil leader again directly asked the Taoiseach if he believed it was alright to Minister Naughten to have met with Mr McCourt.
“I think it’s ok for Mr Naughten to have met Mr McCourt provided it conferred no advantage on him,” the Taoiseach replied. He went on to argue that the Minister met the heads of many companies, including the heads of various semi-state firms, about whom he was later to make a decision on funding.
Mr Varadkar countered that Mr Martin had a history of making allegations against himself and the Health Minister, Simon Harris, in relation to CervicalCheck. When these allegations were later shown to be wrong by the Scally Report, Mr Martin had not withdrawn them.
“This is a pattern of yours – and unfortunately it’s not a good one,” Mr Varadkar told the Fianna Fáil leader.