Saturday 24 August 2019

Varadkar’s Government in crisis after one minister resigns, another faces fight for survival

  • Minister's resignation sparks Coalition crisis - but Fianna Fáil wary of election

  • 'More to do with opinion polls,' says Naughten as FG ministers furious over how minister resigned

  • Communications minister Denis Naughten did not inform the Taoiseach of his decision to stand down before making shock announcement in Dáil

  • Move heightens likelihood of general election before Christmas

  • Mr Naughten held six meetings with the lead bidder for the National Broadband Plan

Denis Naughten
Denis Naughten
Seal of office: Denis Naughten and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar during an Appointment of Ministers Ceremony in 2017

Kevin Doyle and Cormac McQuinn

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s Government is in chaos after one minister resigned and another was left facing a fight for survival.

Communications minister Denis Naughten, an Independent TD, did not inform the Taoiseach of his decision to stand down before making the shock announcement in the Dáil.

The move heightens the likelihood of a general election before Christmas, although Fianna Fáil sources last night said they would “not be jumping the gun”.

Mr Naughten held six meetings with the lead bidder for the National Broadband Plan.

A dinner at businessman David McCourt’s home in Co Clare, attended by Mr Naughten, was organised by Minister of State Pat Breen.

Senior Government figures say Mr Breen is “an innocent bystander” in the controversy.

But his constituency colleague, Independent TD Michael Harty, who has until recently supported the Coalition, said the revelation called his position into question.

There are now fears that roll-out of high-speed broadband to more than 500,000 homes, schools and businesses could be further delayed.

Education Minister Richard Bruton is to double up as Communications Minister while Mr Varadkar figures his next move.

Minister of State Seán Kyne is seen as a frontrunner for promotion. The name of former Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald, who was yesterday cleared of any wrongdoing in relation to Garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe, was also being mentioned but this is seen as less likely.

If Mr Varadkar moves a junior minister up to Cabinet, he may then feel the need to offer a position to an Independent TD in order to shore up the numbers for his embattled minority Government. Galway TDs Seán Canney and Noel Grealish are being tipped as contenders.

The instability has created a major crisis for the Government after a Budget that was well received by most sectors.

However, Fianna Fáil has no immediate plans to force an election. Sources noted Mr Varadkar is attending an EU summit next week that could have a profound impact on the outcome of Brexit.

Fine Gael ministers are furious at the manner in which Mr Naughten announced his resignation.

He suggested Mr Varadkar was refusing to stand by him for electoral reasons.

"If I was a cynic, which I am not, I believe this outcome is more about opinion polls than telecoms poles. It is more about optics than fibre optics," he said.

"The fact is that I have to meet investors, whether in telecoms, energy or any other sector.

"These are the people who provide jobs in this country. That is the context in which I had meetings with Mr McCourt, and that is how it should be seen."

Mr Naughten also disputes the version of events described by Mr Varadkar in his Dáil contribution.

The pair met on Wednesday following revelations that the Roscommon TD had dinner with Mr McCourt in New York last July and paid for him to have a birthday dinner in Leinster House in April.

After that initial discussion, Mr Varadkar was "satisfied" with the explanations offered. However, he claims to have then received a phonecall from the minister shortly before midnight in which Mr Naughten recalled a "private dinner in Mr McCourt's home in 2017". At this stage the consortium involving Mr McCourt was not the sole bidder for the massive broadband contract.

During the phonecall, Mr Naughten suggested that he could be reshuffled to another ministry in order to protect the integrity of the National Broadband Plan. They agreed to convene again yesterday.

At that meeting, Mr Naughten informed the Taoiseach of "at least three other private dinners" with Mr McCourt which took place without any officials present or minutes being taken.

Mr Varadkar said Mr Naughten "left himself open to allegations of a conflict of interest and an inappropriate relationship with Mr McCourt which could have in turn brought the process into question, thus potentially jeopardising the project in its entirety".

He asked the minister to "reflect on his position".

Sources say the meeting ended on an "amicable note" but three hours later Mr Naughten launched a broadside on the Taoiseach in the Dáil. He also publicly insisted he made him aware of the extra meetings on Wednesday. This is rebuffed by Mr Varadkar's office, which claims to have notes of the various conversations.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said that, given what the Taoiseach told the Dáil, "he took the right decision".

Minister of State Pat Breen issued a statement defending his decision to organise the 2017 dinner. He lives 16km from Mr McCourt in Co Clare.

"Last year, on the request of Mr McCourt, I asked Denis Naughten if he would like to come to a dinner in Mr McCourt's house. Mr McCourt's wife also attended the dinner. To my knowledge, the National Broadband Plan was not discussed at the dinner," he said.

Independent TD Michael Harty said: "If the Taoiseach believes that deputy Naughten acted with impropriety, he must also believe that those who arranged those meetings acted inappropriately as well."

Irish Independent

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