Broadband report delayed until after elections

Sean Fleming

An independent report on the contentious broadband plan will be delayed until after the local and European elections amid claims it could unfairly impact on the votes.

The Oireachtas public accounts committee has agreed to postpone the completion of its report into the financial implications of the broadband plan which had been scheduled to be published in the coming days.

The PAC was due to meet in private at noon on Wednesday to finalise its broadband report before agreeing to a publication date before the middle of next week.

However, after Tuesday's cabinet decision to announce the McCourt consortium as the "preferred bidder" and the Government's publication of two dozen files on Wednesday, PAC chair and Fianna Fáil TD Sean Fleming wrote to members asking them to cancel the meeting.

"The chair has requested the meeting proposed for today [Wednesday] at noon to discuss two draft documents in relation to housing and broadband matters be cancelled.

"The chairman's view is it would be inappropriate to proceed given the developments in the last day or so," he wrote.

At the start of todyay's PAC meeting, Mr Fleming confirmed the broadband report will now not be published in the coming days as doing so "might be seen as the PAC wading into a current controversy".

Citing the "very highly charged debate" taking place over broadband, he said:

I felt the most prudent thing to do was to just hold that over... Certainly we want to complete our work as soon as practicable... I myself would not recommend we publish a report within the week of the elections.

"We'll be coming back to it, we'll just hold off, I just felt it was prudent."

While Sinn Féin TD David Cullinane said "I don't think we should be too precious about the timing of elections", he added it was "right not to proceed with the report" for now.

Similarly, Independent TD Catherine Connolly said she agreed the report needed to be deferred as "we do need more information", but stressed this should not be framed as being for political reasons.

After Social Democrats TD Catherine Murphy pointed out she was not in favour of delaying the report's publication and further comments from Ms Connolly, the chair was "doing yourself a disservice" by saying it was political, Mr Fleming rowed back on his initial comments, saying:"I take your point completely. It wasn't for political reasons."

The PAC was criticised from a number of quarters last autumn over its examination of presidential spending levels in the weeks leading up to the presidential elections.

While the PAC has insisted it was right to do so, the stand-off led to significant internal debate in the Oireachtas over the exact scope of the PAC and whether limits should be placed on it in the lead up to elections.

Meanwhile, the PAC has opened up the possibility of a new meeting with Department of Public Expenditure secretary general Robert Watt over the broadband scandal.

Noting Mr Watt's correspondence with senior officials, published on Wednesday, which showed he has deep concerns about the broadband plan, Mr Fleming reminded the committee Mr Watt told the PAC when asked for his view last month: "Mr Watt said answering that was 'more than his job was worth to answer that question publicly'."

"I think now there may be an opportunity for discussion on information he felt he couldn't share on that day," Mr Fleming said.

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