By Elaine Loughlin and Fiachra Ó Cionnaith
The Government is on a knife-edge after the resignation of Communications Minister Denis Naughten, with serious doubts over whether it can pass the budget.
The chances of a snap election before Christmas have escalated, as Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is now one vote short of what is needed to stay in power. Amid suggestions from Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe that the Finance Bill may be fast-tracked, Fianna Fáil is questioning the viability of the numbers to extend a deal to keep Fine Gael in power.
Last night, a senior Fianna Fáil source said Mr Naughten’s resignation “puts a new light on it, but the country has to be put first”, stressing the importance of getting through the Brexit-focused EU summit next week.
TDs were left stunned as Mr Naughten told the Dáil he had been forced to resign by the Taoiseach over six meetings he held with billionaire businessman David McCourt.
Questions remain around the minister of state for trade, business, and employment, Pat Breen, who organised one of these dinners. Last night, Mr Breen said the 2017 meeting had been arranged at the request of Mr McCourt and he had met the businessman numerous times in the past two years.
In an attack on Mr Varadkar, Mr Naughten told the Dáil yesterday: “I believe this outcome is more about opinion polls than telecoms poles. It is more about optics than fibre optics.”
'If I was a cynic, which I am not, I believe the outcome is more about opinion polls that telecom polls. It's more about optics than fibre optics' - Denis Naughten pic.twitter.com/EBBVbZYTLz— RTÉ News (@rtenews) October 11, 2018
Mr Varadkar later detailed Mr Naughten’s failure to inform him of a series of meetings with Mr McCourt, who is part of the consortium bidding for the State’s multimillion-euro rural broadband contract.
In a hastily prepared Dáil statement, Mr Varadkar said he had met with Mr Naughten on Wednesday evening and was “satisfied with the explanations” given. Mr Varadkar said he had then been contacted by the minister shortly before midnight “to inform me that he had just remembered that he had a private dinner in Mr McCourt’s home in 2017”.
“Deputy Naughten suggested that, in order to protect the National Broadband Plan project, he be reshuffled to another ministry or that responsibility for broadband be assigned to another minister,” said the Taoiseach. “I said that I would reflect on it overnight and meet him in the morning.
"I met with Deputy Naughten again [yesterday] morning and during the meeting he informed me that he had at least three other private dinners with Mr McCourt."
Mr Naughten later contradicted the Taoiseach, claiming on RTÉ he had told Mr Varadkar of the meetings with Mr McCourt on Wednesday night and not yesterday morning.
Mr Naughten’s departure leaves the Government in jeopardy — and reliant on Independent TD Michael Lowry. The Government is still one vote short of the 57 required even after the four Independent Alliance members, Katherine Zappone, Sean Canney, and Mr Lowry are included. It must therefore get the support of Noel Greelish or former Fine Gael TD Peter Fitzpatrick to pass the budget.