Tuesday 17 September 2019

John Downing: 'Neither Leo nor Micheál will win any votes from people waiting for broadband after six years'


Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: PA
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: PA
John Downing

John Downing

Leo Varadkar does annoy Micheál Martin when he tells the nation that in 2011, when Fine Gael first entered Government Buildings, only half the nation had broadband, but now it's three-quarters.

The Fianna Fáil leader has to repeatedly chorus that any progress has been driven by commercial companies - not any "big government plan". The final quarter of the nation, those 542,000 homes and businesses which arguably need broadband most, require a big government intervention.

Today, that marathon foot-dragging exercise, otherwise called the renegotiation of the Confidence and Supply Agreement, will focus in a big way on broadband when the discussions resume.

Fianna Fáil wants to gain political ground - but it is hemmed in by the fear that too aggressive a stance could add to already serious delays.

The audit result of the broadband process has fallen well for Mr Varadkar and his Government. It concludes that meetings and calls between former communications minister Denis Naughten and the principal of the last bidding group still standing, the Irish-American business magnate David McCourt, were a "cause for concern".

But the auditor Peter Smyth also decided that the tender process had not been contaminated.

The report has also justified the Taoiseach's decision to pressure Mr Naughten into quitting, an outcome which allowed Government continue the tender process. Mr Smyth said the minister's decision to resign "insulates the process from any apparent bias created by his engagement with Mr McCourt". Nobody at Leinster House ever suggested that Denis Naughten was involved in any kind of chicanery.

This audit showed that the process was not altered in any way to benefit McCourt's consortium. And Mr Naughten did not have key information. But the political reality is that the ex-minister's contacts with the bidder were ill-judged.

Mr Smyth also said he had to rely upon statements from Mr Naughten, Mr McCourt and others present for verification as there was no official record of these contacts. So he could not unequivocally state that the State-led intervention was not discussed at these meetings. But the auditor did look closely at the chronology of events and was entitled to make certain inferences in making his decisions.

Now the tender process will continue, but we don't know if the Government can approve the final outcome. Costs are likely to rise big-time for taxpayers.

Rural Ireland needs broadband for survival, both economically and socially.

Voters in provincial Ireland will be entitled to judge this one harshly. Six years on from the National Broadband plan, they are still waiting for results.

Irish Independent

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