Saturday 18 January 2020

Taoiseach insists minister did not give confidential information to lobbyist acting for INM

Minister Naughten to make a Dáil statement at 3pm

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

Communications Minister Denis Naughten did not give any confidential information to a lobbyist acting for Independent News & Media, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has insisted.

Mr Naughten is to make a personal statement to the Dáil this afternoon in response to claims that he tipped off a PR executive of plans to refer the proposed takeover of Celtic Media by INM to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland.

The allegation has been made by the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement (ODCE) as part of his application to have inspectors appointed to investigate corporate governance issues at INM.

It was reported today that details of a conversation between the minister and Eoghan Ó Neachtain, director of public affairs at Heneghan PR, were relayed to INM’s largest shareholder Denis O’Brien in November 2016.

It is alleged Mr Ó Neachtain informed PR executive Nigel Heneghan on a phonecall he had with the minister. In turn Mr Heneghan alerted INM’s then chairman Leslie Buckley to the minister’s thinking.

The State’s corporate watchdog has claimed Mr Buckley then emailed Mr O’Brien in a move that may amount to "inside information" and potentially a breach of stock market rules.

The issue was raised in the Dáil today by Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and the Labour Party.

Micheál Martin said the alleged conversation took place two months before Mr Naughten actually referred the potential media merger to the BAI.

"This was all in advance of this information being made available to other shareholders," he said.

Mr Martin questioned whether the Taoiseach believes this "normal practice" or "appropriate".

Sinn Fein’s Mary Lou McDonald said it was "a very troubling story".

"It seems for all of the guff about this new politics, is this where we’re at now? The gold plated few get access to ministers."

And Brendan Howlin described the series of allegations facing INM, including that journalists' data was given to a third party, are "deeply disturbing".

"This case will have serious repercussions," he said.

In response Mr Varadkar said he first became aware of the allegations facing the Communications Minister last night.

"Still don’t have all the facts as you might imagine, nobody does. We haven’t seen this affidavit, " he said.

But Mr Varadkar added: "I am satisfied that Minister Naughten didn’t give out any information that was confidential."

He suggested that lobbyists often overstate the importance of information they gather.

"The information was not confidential," he repeated.

Refusing Ms McDonald’s accusation about access to minister, the Taoiseach said almost anybody can access a minister in Ireland.

"It’s not that difficult to access a minister in Ireland," Mr Varadkar said.

Mr Naughten is to make a Dáil statement at 3pm.

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