Varadkar slams Sinn Féin idea to use ESB for broadband plan as 'political stunt'

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has slapped down calls by Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin to use the ESB to roll out high-speed broadband, saying this could be “illegal” and would cause delays for rural Ireland.

A move by Sinn Féin to bring a Dáil motion on the issue was a “political stunt”, he argued, as demands for a review of the controversial €3bn project were also rejected.

Joining MEP Mairead McGuinness and Fine Gael politicians on an election canvass in Kells, Meath, Mr Varadkar declined to reveal how much the bidder is putting into the broadband deal.

“We have, on the Government side, a broadband plan and, on the opposition side with Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin, an alternative that isn't real.

"We know that if we sign this contract, we can have it signed in time for the ploughing match [championships].

"Within a year, 10,000 homes and hundreds of hubs around the country will be connected. And the year after that, over 100,000 homes and businesses in every county in Ireland will be connected. We know what the State's maximum exposure is.”

He was critical of calls by the Opposition to use existing poles and infrastructure owned by the ESB to build the 540,000 estimated connections.

“When it comes to the alternatives that people are putting forward, such as the ESB...that doesn't want to do it (and) pulled out of the process already. They would probably be violating State aid rules and single market rules to [select] a company without a competition.

"They can't say how long the delay would be, they won't say how much it would cost and they can't guarantee 100% coverage. So essentially what Sinn Feéin and Fianna Fáil are saying to rural Ireland is 'wait'.”

He said the ESB plan could be "illegal".

The Government has faced significant criticism after it emerged that key civil servants flagged warnings about significant risks to the taxpayer. The announcement of the €3bn deal with a new consortium led by Irish American businessman, David McCourt, was also deemed an "election stunt" ahead of voting for the local and European elections on May 24.

Sinn Féin leader, Mary Lou McDonald, has pledged to table a Dáil motion in weeks ahead to use the ESB for the plan - a move critics say is designed to embarrass Fianna Fáil's support for the Government.

Mr Varadkar called this a “political stunt”. He also again refused to divulge how much the private bidder is putting into the broadband plan. Mr Varadkar insisted that the McCourt group would need to invest equity and possible future capital, but would say no more.

Fianna Fáil has estimated that the bidder's initial input could be as low as €300m to €400m while the taxpayer must foot up to €3bn.

Meanwhile, Ms McGuinness ruled out carving up some of her support or votes with Midlands-North West constituency colleague and former Rose of Tralee Marie Walsh.

In an Irish Times poll result, Ms McGuinness is currently set to receive some 29% of support from voters. But there will be no voting pact with her Fine Gael running mate: “Maria is doing very well and I can't do that myself (a pact), but I'm sure others might."

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