Speaking to the Roscommon People following his resignation due to controversy surrounding a number of private dinners he had shared with David McCourt, former Minister for Communications, Climate Action and the Environment, Denis Naughten, stoutly defended his performance as Minister and said the controversy and his subsequent resignation had “more to do with optics than fiber optics”.
“It has been a tough week. Politics is a dirty, ruthless game at times and I think many people have seen that first-hand this week, but look that’s the job we’re in and I suppose we just have to be conscious of that. My job now is to dust myself off and get on with things. I’m still a TD; I’m a member of Dáil Éireann. I’ve been sent there to represent the people of Roscommon-Galway and I intend to continue to do that to the best of my ability for as long as I’m there”.
Deputy Naughten said that he had spoken to An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar on Wednesday, October 10th in relation to the four dinners he had had with David McCourt.
“I said to the Taoiseach: ‘Look, I can see the perception and the optics of this but the reality is that I never discussed the broadband plan with him, I never gave him any information because it wasn’t available to me. The procurement process of the National Broadband Plan is completely separate from me. Within the Department it’s completely independently audited and I said ‘The important thing here is to protect this project’. It’s so important for the 1.1 million people across the country and that was and is my focus in relation to the discussions that I had with the Taoiseach and my subsequent announcement in the Dáil,” he said.
When asked what the purpose of the dinners was if not to discuss the National Broadband Plan, Deputy Naughten said: “Look, I met David McCourt both socially and professionally. I’d have met with other chief executives of the other big Telecommunication companies in the country in a similar manner”.
Deputy Naughten added that despite the recent controversy his focus has been on delivering the National Broadband Plan.
“As I said in the Dáil, this is more a focus on optics than fiber optics. My focus has always been on delivering this broadband project; delivering it for the people who are hugely frustrated across Ireland in relation to this and to try and get that to happen as quickly as possible both in terms of making sure there were no blockages in terms of the procurement process but more importantly when this process is completed and a contract hopefully signed that we can actually start rolling it out very quickly.
“The Taoiseach acknowledged that this was purely an issue of optics and in fairness, members of Dáil Éireann have acknowledged that I’m not someone who was doing this for any ulterior motive other than trying to get this project completed and get broadband to people across the country”.
Deputy Naughten questioned comments made by the opposition criticising the ongoing procurement stage, which he said was a “very, very complex process”.
“Comments made by the opposition in relation to the broadband plan over the last period of time have not been helpful in bringing this to a conclusion. The reality is that all of the figures were submitted in September 2017 to the Department. The Department had its own independent evaluators providing them with figures and costing in relation to that. Since that date there has been a good idea of the ballpark figures that have been involved in this but there’s been a huge amount of detail and it is a very, very complex process.
“Remember, in a normal procurement process you know what you actually want to procure. In this case we didn’t have the solution at the start of the process. It was a matter of the bidders to come in and provide the solution in relation to that so whether it was in terms of a wireless solution, a wired solution, a fibre optic solution, all of those technical solutions were part of the procurement process and that’s why it was this kind of dialogue process, not an auction,” he said.
Deputy Naughten did however welcome the Taoiseach’s recent vow that he would make broadband his own “personal crusade” and confirmed that he would support the government on a “case by case basis”.
“First of all I welcome the Taoiseach’s comments in relation to that because, as I said, my only priority throughout this and the only thing that was ever in my mind was the people that were hugely frustrated across the country. I will support the government in any way possible to deliver this particular project.
“In relation to broader issues across government, I will deal with those on a case by case basis. I spoke with Minister Seán Kyne, the chief whip, on Saturday morning (13th) and I’ll have further engagement with him this week but I will deal with the issues as and when they arise,” he said.
When asked whether he felt a General Election was imminent, Deputy Naughten said: “I don’t know…since this government was appointed we’ve had rumours week after week that this government would fall and that there would be a General Election.
“In fairness if you look across the portfolio I had responsibility for and broader across government, a significant amount of work has been done over the last two and a half years, so despite this happening and the threat being there on an ongoing basis maybe it’s concentrated the minds of many Ministers that they need to get this done and done quickly because we weren’t going to have a full five-year term”.
In terms of his own prospects in any General Election, Deputy Naughten said: “It has been a tough week. I don’t know in relation to my re-election; that will be something the people of Roscommon-Galway will have to consider but I can reassure them that every single decision I made as Minister in that department…my sole focus was on the impact that it would have on communities and individuals across the country. I have absolutely no concerns whatsoever of any reviews that would take place looking into any decision I have made”.
Looking back on his role as Minister for Communcations, Climate Action and the Environment, Deputy Naughten highlighted the challenges he had faced.
“It is a very, very broad department. The reality is I was dealing with crisis after crisis every single week.
“I had huge challenges in relation to An Post, I was facing a situation where a State company was about to go into liquidation and that was very soon
“I’ve made substantial progress in a lot of very, very complex areas over that period of time. I’m very proud of my record in the department and more generally in government but it is a very, very difficult and challenging department with a very broad range of challenges,” he concluded.