“There was nothing wrong or inappropriate” a defiant Mr Naughten told the Dáil in a special hearing on the controversy about a phone call he had with lobbyist Eoghan Ó Neachtain in November 2016.
Mr Naughten said he told Mr Ó Neachtain — a PR lobbyist for Independent News and Media (INM) — that its proposed takeover of Celtic Media would “likely” be referred for approval. This was two months before that was announced publicly.
The Independent minister said he told the lobbyist it was his “personal opinion” it was likely to be referred to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, but that depended on advice from officials.
He admitted taking no notes of the phone conversation or of telling his officials of it.
It was reported yesterday that Mr Ó Neachtain conveyed this to his PR colleague Nigel Heneghan and this in turn was sent by email to then INM chairman Leslie Buckley. The details were then forwarded to INM major shareholder and businessman Denis O’Brien, reports said.
The State’s corporate watchdog has now allegedly claimed Mr Naughten’s contact and subsequent communications about the media deal may amount to “inside information” and potentially breach stock market rules.
The National Union of Journalists yesterday also questioned minister’s contact with the INM lobbyist, with Seamus Dooley saying the matter raised “fundamental concerns”.
Under questioning in the Dail, Mr Naughten also admitted he had spoken to Leslie Buckley at a INM data protection event last May in Dublin but this was only “small talk”.
Despite the controversy, senior members of the Government rallied to his defence last night and said his position was safe.
The Taoiseach said he was happy Mr Naughten did not reveal any confidential information in his phonecall.
Speaking at an event in Dublin, Mr Varadkar said he was “satisfied” with Mr Naughten’s explanation.
“Yeah, his explanation was clear,” he told reporters.
Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy said there was “absolutely” no need for Mr Naughten to resign.
“He went into the Dail and answered every question put to him,” he said.
Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan said he was satisfied no confidential information was given out by Mr Naughten.
“I am very pleased he addressed this issue head on… we had a comprehensive debate. He had no confidential information on the occasion of the phonecall.”
However, Sinn Féin and the Social Democrats claimed the minister misled the Dáil by failing to answer queries properly about the INM deal in December 2016 and his then opinion.
Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald claimed the phonecall was “absolutely not appropriate”. She went further, alleging:
“That is not a personal view. The phonecall happened. It happened in the way described in this affidavit. The minister did give inside information to Mr Ó Neachtain.”
Solidarity-PBP TD Mick Barry criticised how “the big business lobbyist” was told first and asked whether there should be a fresh review of Mr O’Brien’s media interests in Ireland.
However, Mr Naughten insisted in the Dáil that he had “acted to the letter of the law” and given “no insider information” away. He also said: “I didn’t willfully mislead the Dáil.”
Fianna Fáil’s Timmy Dooley last night questioned if it was acceptable for a Cabinet minister to act the way he did.
“I don’t know how you divorce a personal and ministerial opinion,” he told RTÉ.
He also said the confidence and supply deal for Fianna Fáil to support Fine Gael in government would continue.
Senior Fianna Fáil sources last night conceded Mr Naughten’s action were a “complete mess”, but one leading figure added: “This is not a hanging or firing offence.”
Sinn Féin also said last night they would not be tabling a Dáil motion of no confidence in Mr Naughten.