Fine Gael MEP event dominated by broadband controversy

An event to promote Fine Gael’s European election candidates for Dublin was dominated by the national broadband controversy.

The Government has defended its decision to give the go-ahead to the plan, which is now billed to cost up to €5bn, despite being strongly urged not to proceed with it.

Despite paying the bulk of the cost, €3bn, the Government will not own the network once it is built.

Documentation released by the Government on Wednesday showed that Secretary General Robert Watt and his officials had strongly recommended against the Government appointing the preferred bidder on grounds of affordability, risk and value for money.

“The state is taking an unprecedented risk with this project,” Mr Watt warned.

Today, Tanaiste Simon Coveney joined the party’s Dublin European Election candidates, Frances Fitzgerald and Mark Durkan, and the Dublin Director of Elections, and Communications Minister Richard Bruton, in what was initially billed as an event to discuss the role the next European Parliament and Brexit.

In the proceeding Q&A, every question but one directly involved the broadband plan, and both election candidates remained on the sidelines of discussion as the Tanaiste and minister fielded a barrage of inquiries about the cost and outcome of the broadband plan.

“Five billion excluding VAT is an estimate that’s being used of the total cost of design, build and operate over 25 years,” Minister Bruton said.

“The cost to the state in worst case scenario is €2.79 billion.

“As to whether we could have acquired a lower cost, I can assure you we examined the cost, up and down and across and back.

“We looked at every conceivable alternative to doing this, and at the end of that process, we determined, with the best advice, that this was the best solution.

“Equal access to broadband technology which will truly transform the way we live and work, should be equally available to 1.1m people who live in rural Ireland, for whom the privatisation of telecoms means their entirely dependent on the commercial sector to deliver this service, who have not committed, and that is why the state has to intervene.”

It was also suggested that Minister for Public Expenditure Paschal Donohoe could now be facing a difficult working environment as he is now publicly at odds with his Mr Watt.

Mr Coveney said that government was not about people agreeing all the time, and that Minister Donohoe and Mr Watt would continue to work together as usual.

“The way government is run is not always based on everyone agreeing on everything, there’s a lot of talented smart people linked to advising government and sometimes on big decisions there are disagreements,” he said.

“This is really about, as the Taoiseach said, it’s his job to envisage what this country should look like in 20 years time, and make decisions now to help that to happen, and Robert Watt has a job to do too; to test expenditure.”

Fine Gael is running two candidates for the four available Dublin seats in the European elections.

The county has been divided up for each candidate, with former SDLP leader Mark Durkan taking the south of the county, and former Tanaiste Frances Fitzgerald taking the northern half.

Mr Durkan, who lives in Derry and will not be moving to Dublin if elected, has already come under considerable criticism for standing for Fine Gael, after leading the SDLP in Northern Ireland for many years, and refused to defend Fine Gael’s government policies in the media.

However the party remains confident that due to a looming Brexit, Mr Durkan’s experience during the Northern Ireland peace process, he will be an important addition in Europe.

- Press Association

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