Naughten’s shock resignation after tense meetings with Taoiseach
Roscommon’s most high profile current politician – and the county’s first senior minister in over thirty years – dramatically resigned from Cabinet last week.
Denis Naughten stunned his own Government by unexpectedly stepping down after it emerged that he had attended a series of private dinners with David McCourt, a key bidder for the National Broadband Plan contract.
In an angry Dáil speech, Deputy Naughten defended his actions but said that the Taoiseach no longer had confidence in him. Accordingly, he was resigning.
It was both a major personal career blow for Denis Naughten and a significant setback for the Roscommon/Galway constituency. Minister Naughten’s sudden fall and what led to it may also prove to be the deathknell for the ill-fated National Broadband Plan in its current guise.
Twenty-four tumultuous hours in the career of Denis Naughten began when the then Communications Minister was asked about a lunch attended by Mr. McCourt in the Members’ Restaurant in Leinster House. Mr. McCourt is an Irish-American businessman and Chairman of Granahan McCourt, a company which is the one remaining bidder for the National Broadband contract.
Deputy Naughten was less than sure-footed in his response, but there was no sign of the explosive turn of events to come. On the lunch issue, Deputy Naughten clarified that he facilitated the lunch (and paid for it) but had not been present.
Opposition politicians immediately argued that it was inappropriate for the Communications Minister of the day to have any contact with a bidder in a multi-million euro procurement process, when that process was still ongoing. (It had already emerged earlier this year that then Minister Naughten had met Mr. McCourt in New York in July).
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar initially defended Mr. Naughten, but the controversy deepened over Wednesday night/Thursday morning of last week.
Mr. Varadkar says that Denis Naughten phoned him at around 11.45 pm on Wednesday night to inform the Taoiseach that he had just recalled a private dinner he had attended with Mr. McCourt. According to the Taoiseach, when he met Deputy Naughten the following morning, the Roscommon TD then revealed that he had at least three other private dinners with McCourt.
The Taoiseach said that Deputy Naughten had not informed him of these additional meetings when they met the previous day (or when they spoke on the phone).
Taoiseach: “I have no doubt that his intentions were honourable at all times. But I do believe he left himself open to allegations of conflict of interest and an inappropriate relationship with Mr. McCourt which could have in turn brought the process into question, thus potentially jeopardising the project in entirety”.
Deputy Naughten subsequently disputed the Taoiseach’s version of events, stating that he had informed Mr. Varadkar of the additional meetings during their telephone conversation the previous night.
During his resignation speech, Deputy Naughten said that he had offered to pass over the NBP process to his junior minister, or to another Cabinet minister, but that this offer was refused by the Taoiseach.
The outcome, he lamented, “is more about opinion polls than telephone polls. It’s more about optics than fibre optics”.
Roscommon politicians, including Deputies Eugene Murphy and Michael Fitzmaurice, and Senator Terry Leyden, were quick to offer support to their constituency colleague.