Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Communications Minster Denis Naughten have broken their silence on the data breach scandal at Independent News and Media, saying it is very “concerning”.
Their comments come as two Opposition leaders – Micheál Martin and Mary Lou McDonald – signalled they intend raising the controversy in the Dáil on its return next week.
Speaking for the first time about the scandal at a Project Ireland 2040 event in NUI Galway, Mr Varadkar said an independent press is fundamental to the workings of any democracy and that we need a strong and independent media.
He said: “I do have concerns. Of course I do,” the Taoiseach said.
“For our democracy to function we need to have an independent press and we need to have a diversity of press ownership as well and, you know, I'm a great believer in that because democracy can't function without a strong and independent media,” he added.
“What's going to happen now is a government office, the ODCE is going to initiate an investigation. At least until that investigation is completed I can't really say any more. I think it is appropriate that there be an investigation by this government office, the ODCE,” the Taoiseach said.
Mr Naughten, who has ministerial responsibility for the media broke his silence after a week of declining to comment on the matter.
He concurred that what has emerged is very concerning.
“Look there's absolutely no doubt about it there are concerns in relation to what is out in the public domain now at the moment. But there is an investigation ongoing with the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement. There's also a second investigation with Helen Dixon and both of those investigations are ongoing at present and I think we need to let both of those investigations take place,” he said.
“I think it is important that there's a differentiation here with the allegations that are made in relation to the board activity and also the work of the employees within the company who are trying to do their work on a day-to-day basis. And I think there needs to be clear distinction made in relation to that. But let's have the investigations,” he added.
“Let's see what comes out of that. But we have to ensure that we have a media in this country that we can all be confident about. It is important for the democratic process and I think it's something that I've spoken on a number of occasions in the past and it's something the government is actively looking at,” he added.
Mr Martin and Ms McDonald are expected to grill Mr Varadkar in response to growing concerns over the scale of the data breach, which involves private information - and potentially sources - of INM workers being examined by an external firm.
Ms McDonald said she will also raise the INM data breach issue in the Dáil, adding that the matter should be of serious concern to the public.
"The allegations surrounding data breach at Independent News and Media are very disturbing. It is important that we await the full publication of the ODCE affidavit to the High Court.
Meanwhile, Mr Varadkar said he has not “slapped down” minister Jim Daly over his talking up a Fine Gael-Sinn Féin coalition.
The Taoiseach said Mr Daly is someone who speaks his mind like he did in the past.
“He’s someone who’s outspoken and who speaks his mind in a way perhaps that I did a lot in the past, so I’m certainly not slapping anyone down,” he said.
He said Mr Daly is doing a “fabulous job” as minister for mental health.
“I gave him a very important post as Minister for State with special responsibility for people with mental health issues and older people, managing a budget of close to €4billion and I think he’s doing a really good job in that space,” he said despite shooting down comments made by Mr Daly several times in recent months.
Mr Varadkar said he was “puzzled” as to the obsession around future coalitions and said there are ideological differences between Fine Gael and Sinn Fein which make them incompatible for Government.
“Absolutely, my view is that my party, Fine Gael, and Sinn Féin are incompatible, they’re a eurosceptic, high tax, sectarian party and we’re not,” he said.
“For example, they want to increase VAT which would drive up the cost of living for everyone, they don’t want to give any tax breaks to middle-income people, they’re eurosceptic or euro-critical at a time when we need allies around Europe, and also the very nationalistic approach when I think we should be internationalistic,” he added.