Broadband plan unlikely to progress until answers found

Despite the Government spin, the report into the Denis Naughten broadband fiasco fails to provide answers needed to clarify what happened, writes political correspondent Fiachra Ó Cionnaith.

One says ‘nothing to see’, the other ‘nothing answered’.

Those are the contradictory responses from the Government and the Opposition to the publication of the report into the Denis Naughten broadband fiasco.

The report, by independent auditor Peter Smyth, is 50 pages long and details the step-by-step facts surrounding the scandal that led to a Government minister resigning and has threatened the

entire future of the vital National Broadband Plan itself.

However, the Government and the Opposition have come to completely different conclusions as to the value of the report. And, for once at least, there is a genuine reason why.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Communications Minister Richard Bruton were at pains to stress the report has cleared Mr Naughten of anything untoward, removed concerns over the politically sensitive €3bn broadband plan, and ended any debate on the controversy.

However, Opposition parties have already labelled the report a “whitewash” as it relied on Mr Naughten and broadband bidder David McCourt to clarify unexplained interactions, said Mr Naughten could never have influenced the process, and claimed the ex-minister’s resignation itself “insulates” the project from further questioning.

While the report is of value in detailing the available information surrounding the broadband lobbying claims, the stand-off has made it crystal clear that key questions remain unanswered and gaping holes still exist surrounding the controversy.

And until they are answered, there will continue to be legitimate questions hanging over the broadband plan’s future. 

These questions include:

Why did Denis Naughten and David McCourt meet so regularly?

Despite the investigation, there is no clear answer to this in all cases.

At the centre of the fiasco is the concerning number of meetings that Mr Naughten had with Granahan McCourt chairman David McCourt.

The Peter Smyth report confirms that the minister and multi-billion euro businessman or his officials met 18 times and held nine phone calls in the months leading up to last month’s revelations, compared to seven, four, and 10 times with rival bidders.

A number of these meetings with Mr McCourt relate to wider communications policy issues. However, others include dinners between September 2017 and April 2018, with no minutes taken in some discussions.

The Smyth report says Mr Naughten “did not seek to influence” the tender process on the back of these meetings and was unable to anyway as he did not have “sensitive” information.

However, the report has sparked fresh concerns over the fact it concludes on page 18 that “due to the limitations of the review process… I am reliant on statements of Mr Naughten, Mr McCourt and other parties for verification of the purpose and contents of those meetings”.

Hardly the clarity sought.

Did Denis Naughten breach the rules or not?

The existing rules on ministers meeting with people tendering for lucrative State contracts should be crystal clear, but perhaps they are not.

Existing interaction protocols state only meetings which “cannot necessarily be avoided” should be allowed when a procurement process is taking place.

However, dinners and coffee meetings are clearly avoidable.

While acknowledging the meetings with Mr McCourt “gave cause for concern as they suggest an ongoing engagement outside of any formal need for them to engage”, the Smyth report says the protocol surrounding such meetings “does not explicitly prohibit engagement between the bidders and the Department”.

Saying “any prohibition would have been impractical” as Mr McCourt was involved in other projects, the report finds the meetings are “not in and of itself a process for finding the procurement process has been tainted”.

If Denis Naughten is cleared, why is he not back in office?

This is a legitimate question, and one a certain Independent Roscommon TD, if not the Taoiseach himself, will be keen to have answered.

However, there is no answer at this stage.

Asked at the launch of the report — which was published minutes before the press conference, where no copies were available — Mr Bruton said Mr Naughten had been found to have done nothing wrong.

However, he added that his decision to “step down” was because he wanted to remove any risk of the broadband plan being negatively impacted by the meetings controversy.

A second senior minister, when asked yesterday by the Irish Examiner when Mr Naughten will return, joked: “I think I’ll keep a diplomatic silence on that.”

This prompts another question: If there is no problem with what happened, then why is Mr Naughten not being brought back to Cabinet?

What does this mean for the broadband plan? Can it still go ahead?

The Smyth report has concluded that the broadband plan is ultimately unaffected by the meetings scandal because Mr Naughten’s “decision to resign, therefore removing himself from the process, insulates the process from any apparent bias”.

However, leaving aside the fact that such a conclusion appears to contradict the separate conclusion that Mr Naughten did nothing wrong, it is far from clear if the view will be universally shared.

Opposition parties have made it clear they believe unsuccessful broadband plan bidders may still take legal action over the meetings, and have asked if the tendering process needs to be re-examined.

And while the Government may want to drive ahead with the plan as soon as possible, the push-back means little progress is likely to be made until all outstanding questions are answered.

More on this topic

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McCourt ‘bringing nothing’ to National Broadband Plan

Labour: Govt decision-making could 'wreck a very good' National Broadband Plan

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