Denis Naughten resigns as Communications Minister

It s after the opposition accused him of “contaminated” the National Broadband Plan bidding process

Updated 16:35

The Communications Minister Denis Naughten has resigned his position following controversy over his handling of the bidding process for the National Broadband Plan.

It came after he admitted to attending a number of private dinners with David McCourt, the businessman who heads up the sole remaining consortium bidding for the rural broadband contract - worth over €500m.

In a fiery speech announcing his resignation this morning, Deputy Naughten insisted there was nothing untoward about his dealings with businessmen involved in process.

He insisted he had no role in awarding the multi million Euro contract, noting that it was his department that makes the final call.

However, the revelations drew criticism from opposition parties, with Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin claiming the meetings had “contaminated” the bidding process.

Controversy

The controversy began gathering speed yesterday when Deputy Naughten confirmed he attended a meeting with the businessman along with members of his staff in June.

He also admitted to ‘facilitating’ a lunch in the Dáil bar on behalf of Mr McCourt’s family.

He had already faced down criticism for accepting a dinner invitation from the businessman in New York in July.

When the Taoiseach addressed the Dáil this afternoon, it became clear that there were a number of other dinners the public was unaware of. 

Private dinners

Leo Varadkar said he met with Deputy Naughten on the controversy last night and asked him to outline all the interactions he had with Mr McCourt as Minister for Communications - and said he was “satisfied with his answers."

However, he said he then received a phone call from Mr Naughten shortly before midnight.

He said the former minister “informed me that he had just remembered that he had a private dinner with Mr McCourt in Mr McCourt’s home in 2017.”

He said the dinners was organised and attended by Minister for State Pat Breen.

"I met with Deputy Naughten again this morning and during the meeting, he informed that he had at least three other private dinners with Mr McCourt," he said. 

"There were no officials present and there are no minutes."

"He had not informed me of these additional meeting, either when we met yesterday or when we met last night."

He said he has no doubt that Deputy Naughten's "intentions were honourable at all points."

"But I do believe he left himself open to allegations of a conflict of interests and an inappropriate relationship with Mr McCourt which could have in turn brought the process into question - thus potentially jeopardising the project in entirety.

"Ultimately as Minister he had a decision making role and it would have been his responsibility to bring to Cabinet the memo to gain the approval for Government for the awarding of any contract.

He said he had accepted Deputy Naughten's resignation as minister and had appointed the Education Minister Richard Bruton in his place in an interim capacity.

Mr Varadkar has also sought an independent report on the National Broadband Plan (NBP) to ensure it has not been compromised.

Resignation 

Announcing his resignation in a fiery speech to the Dáil this afternoon, Deputy Naughten insisted that he had done nothing to compromise the NBP procurement process.  

He also criticised the media and the opposition for what he called "loose language" and "irresponsible politics."

He insisted there was nothing untoward about his meetings with Mr McCourt.

"The fact is, as minister I have to meet investors whether it is in the telecoms or energy or any other sector," he said.

"These are the people that 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.

"The reality is David McCourt has met with every single communications minister; has met with several members of this Government and members of the opposition in recent years," he said.

"For my family, for my constituents and more important for the 1.1 million people who are waiting for this essential [broadband] service, a vital service to ordinary people in rural Ireland, I've given An Taoiseach my resignation,” he said.

"I wish my colleagues well and I would ask most of all that the NBP process is allowed to reach its conclusion over the next few weeks for the 1.1 million people in rural Ireland who need this infrastructure now more than ever."

Difficult position

After running through what he felt were his achievements as minister he said he was "now left in the impossible, stark position that no politician ever wants to find themselves in."

"Do I wait for the decision myself - to resign - or wait for that decision to be made for me?" he asked.

"What do I do against the backdrop of the opposition not having sought my resignation?

"If I was a cynic - which I am not - I believe the outcome is more about opinion polls than telecoms poles. It’s more about optics than fibre optics. 

Before concluding, he insisted that all of his actions in relation to the National Broadband Plan were, "taken solely in the interests of bringing high speed broadband; bringing communication services; mobile services to every single home, business and citizen in this country and for no other reason."

"For no other reason whatsoever."

Meetings

The minister faced criticism earlier this year after it emerged he had accepted a dinner invitation from Mr McCourt in New York in July.

At a press briefing yesterday, he said he could not remember meeting with Mr McCourt on any other occasion.

However, a short time later, he confirmed he attended a meeting with the businessman along with members of his staff in June.

He also admitted to ‘facilitating’ a lunch in the Dáil bar on behalf of Mr McCourt’s family but said he did not know who paid for the outing.

Later in the evening, his spokesperson confirmed that the minister paid for the dinner on behalf of Mr McCourt, noting that the bill was in the order of €37 or €38. 

Contaminated

Yesterday, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said the meetings had “contaminated” the bidding process for one of the biggest the contracts in the country’s history.

"People externally looking into this country might be tempted to say now that the key to getting a lucrative contract in Ireland is face time with the Minister," he said.

"We have had tribunals about this type of thing in the past it is extraordinary Taoiseach that this has occurred.

"In my view the Minister has contaminated the process."

Taoiseach's defence

On Newstalk Breakfast this morning, the Taoiseach defended the meetings noting that the Minister was not involved in the deciding who was awarded the contract.

He said there is protocol around how meetings should occur, but the Communications Minister has to be able to talk to CEOs and people who might be interested in the bidding process about other issues.

He said Minister Naughten would "clarify his contacts" with the businessman in the Dáil this afternoon.

Additional reporting by Stephen McNeice ...