Saturday 21 September 2019

Kevin Doyle: Keep rolling: Optics meant minister had to go, but it's not the end

  

Resigned: Former communications minister Denis Naughten
Resigned: Former communications minister Denis Naughten
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

As audit reports go, Peter Smyth's review of the broadband process is very easy to read but difficult to interpret.

It is littered with conflicting assessments - to the point where all of the main players get something out of it.

Denis Naughten will be able to tell his constituents that he did not derail the National Broadband Plan. If anything, he was over eager to get it across the line.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar can claim to have made the right decision when he pushed the Roscommon TD under the bus in order to rescue the project from what the report calls "apparent bias".

Businessman David McCourt survives as the sole bidder for the contract worth at least €500,000.

New Communications Minister Richard Bruton is in a position to reassure people that the process has not been tainted.

And the Opposition gets to argue that the Government has made a mess of the situation.

The political focus will quickly shift towards the actual evaluation of the final pitch made by Granahan McCourt which is likely to come before the Cabinet in advance of the Dáil's Christmas recess.

That will be the make-or-break point for the National Broadband Plan that Fine Gael is so desperate to keep alive. But whatever happens next, Mr Naughten will remain out in the cold to ponder his political future.

It is rare that the Dáil is shocked into silence nowadays but that is what happened when the then-minister stood up two days after the Budget to reveal his "impossible, stark position".

He had to make a decision to resign rather than to wait for the Taoiseach to sack him.

"And what do I do against the backdrop of the Opposition not having sought my resignation?

"If I was a cynic, which I'm not, I believe the outcome is more about opinion polls than telecoms poles. It's more about optics than fibre optics," he said in an emotional speech.

The reality is that the only thing stopping some in the Opposition calling for his resignation was the potential for collapsing the confidence and supply arrangement.

Mr Varadkar later told the Dáil the Independent TD had left himself "open to allegations of a conflict of interest".

Often when they are forced from office, ministers disappear for a sustained period. But Mr Naughten has dusted himself down and quickly returned to normal politics in Leinster House.

He has always maintained that his relationship with Mr McCourt was innocent.

You would be hard pressed to find a TD on any side of the debate who doesn't believe him - but they all struggle to understand what possessed him to go to dinner in the millionaire's home.

Mr Smyth's report says the fact Mr Naughten and Mr McCourt met outside the normal process "is not in and of itself a basis for finding that the procurement process has been tainted".

On one hand the auditor notes he cannot say for sure that they didn't discuss the NBP at some of those occasions. On the other hand he is "satisfied that neither the former minister nor Mr McCourt had the opportunity to influence the conduct of the tender process in favour of Granahan McCourt or otherwise".

But then Mr Smyth concludes that the minister was right to resign, "thereby removing himself from the process, insulates the process from any apparent bias created by his engagements with Mr McCourt".

So ultimately, Denis Naughten was spot on when he said it was all about optics. Politics often is, and it seems bizarre someone with his experience wouldn't have realised that. For that reason, there is no chance that he'll find his way back into this government - but watch this space.

Fine Gael found its ex-party member to be a solid working partner. Leo Varadkar may well find himself asking Denis Naughten to dinner after the next election.

Irish Independent

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