By Fiachra O'Cionnaith
Ex-communications minister Denis Naughten has broken his silence on the broadband meetings controversy which forced him to resign from office, saying he has been cleared by the Government report into the scandal.
In a statement on the 50-page Peter Smyth report this afternoon, the unaligned Independent TD said he has been found not to have done anything wrong, quoting the report by saying he "did not influence or seek to influence" the multi-billion euro procurement process.
"I welcome the findings of the independent audit report by Mr Peter Smyth which concludes that I ‘did not influence or seek to influence’ the conduct of the tender process in favour of Granahan McCourt and further concludes that the process has not been ‘tainted’," Mr Naughten's statement read.
"I welcome the conclusion of Mr Smyth’s report not only for myself but for the 1.2 million people in rural Ireland waiting to be connected to high speed broadband.
"I would now earnestly ask that the Government and all members of Dáil Éireann carry through on the significant body of work that I completed during my time as Communications Minister to ensure that every home and business in Ireland gains access to high speed broadband without any further delay.
"It should be noted that Mr Smyth also concludes that the ‘communications protocol for the procurement process for the State-led intervention under the NBP does not expressly prohibit engagements between the bidders (or individual members of a bidding consortium) and the Department’
"As Minister my job required me to meet investors from all sectors under the remit of my former Department whether they were investors from telecoms, renewable energy, environment or natural resources. These investors are the men and women who provide jobs in our country.
"It is important to note that a Competitive Dialogue Procurement Process requires dialogue and Mr Smyth’s Report details the significant level of engagement that the Department has been expertly managing since the process began.
"I hope that once this procurement process has been completed that the remaining homes, farms and businesses will get access to this technology.
"This should now be the only goal of our government and members of Dáil Éireann at this point and I urge colleagues not to succumb to those who want to make a political issue of the NBP for their own ends and not that of the Country as a whole."
Mr Naughten's statement was in response to the Smyth report's publication today, which cleared him of wrongdoing despite minutes of key meetings being absent - leaving the report's author "reliant" on statements from Mr Naughten, lead bidder David McCourt and other officials for "verification" of what was discussed at meetings
"I cannot unequivocally state the State-led intervention under the national broadband plan was not discussed at the meetings between the former minister and Mr McCourt outside of the procurement process," Mr Smyth's report concluded.
Meanwhile, National Broadband Ireland (NBI) also welcomed today's report which it says confirms that "at no stage did either Mr McCourt or Granahan McCourt influence the tender process in favour of Granahan McCourt or otherwise and any engagements with the Department have always been in the sincere interest of supporting investment in rural Ireland which the National Broadband Plan represents".
A statement released by NBI said: "National Broadband Ireland has been committed to the National Broadband Plan (NBP) since the first days of consultation and will continue to fully support the Department with its procurement evaluation.
"We look forward to continued engagement and remain committed to a successful conclusion to bring world-class connectivity to transform the lives of over a million people in rural Ireland."
By Daniel McConnell
The Government-ordered review into the National Broadband Plan has cleared former Minister Denis Naughten of wrongdoing, despite minutes of key meetings being absent.
As a result, consultant auditor Peter Smyth said he was “reliant” on statements from Mr Naughten, lead bidder David McCourt and other parties for verification of the purpose of those meetings.
“Therefore, I cannot unequivocally state that the State-led intervention under the NBP was not discussed at the meetings between the former minister and Mr McCourt outside of the procurement process,” Mr Smyth's report concluded.
However, Mr Smyth said: “I am satisfied that the [sic] 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.”Mr Smyth goes on to find that Mr Naughten's decision to resign further insulates the process from any perception of wrongdoing.
“I also believe that the decision of the former Minister to resign, thereby removing himself from the process insulates the process from any apparent bias created by his engagements with Mr McCourt,” the report said.
Mr Smyth added that based on the consideration of the data available to him – including information available to Mr Naughten, decisions taken by him, changes to tender documents and an evaluation of submissions to Government – he was satisfied that Mr Naughten “did not influence or seek to influence the conduct of the tender process in favour of Granahan McCourt or otherwise”.
In his report, Mr Smyth examined communications between Mr Naughten and the American businessman David McCourt heading up the Granahan McCourt consortium, the sole remaining bidder for the plan which some estimates have said will cost up to €3 billion.
Mr Naughten, an independent TD for Roscommon, as minister on October 11, two days after the Budget passed.
The report, details that Mr Naughten when minister attended 40 meetings with representatives of one or more members of the consortiums tendering for the State-led intervention under the National Broadband Plan (NBP), 18 of which were with Granahan McCourt consortium.
Mr Smyth confirmed that Mr Naughten met with Mr McCourt on nine occasions, a majority occurred after the NBP initiated a 'Detailed Solution Phase' which required Granahan McCourt to commit significant financial resources to the process.
Eight of the meetings between the two men occurred after rival bidder Eir, had exited the process, meaning Granahan McCourt was the sole remaining bidder.
Mr Smyth highlights two meetings – one on January 31, 2018 in Dublin, June 26, 2018 in Dublin and a phone call on August 8, 2018 did relate to the bid.
In his only criticism of Mr Naughten in the report, Mr Smyth said: “Albeit it would have been preferable that the former minister was accompanied by a departmental official and that the meeting and the call were formally documented.”
However, he found: “The fact that the former minister met Mr McCourt or representatives of the other bidders outside the process is not in and of itself a basis for the finding that the procurement process has been tainted.”
The report found the communications protocol for the procurement process “does not expressly prohibit engagements between the bidders and the Department”, which is state would have been “impracticable in the context of the Department’s ongoing work outside the procurement process”.