If anyone doubted that a week can indeed be a long time in politics, they got their answer last week.
The political landscape last week was meant to be dominated by the Minister for Finance’s Budget. Prominent in the background was the precariously poised Brexit conundrum. Leo and Micheál were already making overtures/playing politics with regard to the short-term future of the Government.
On Thursday, the Charleton Report issued its devastating findings. But tremors that had been observed earlier in the week were about to erupt. From nowhere, came a political bombshell that suddenly overshadowed everything else and threatened the stability of the Government. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was visibly shaken. And our man, Roscommon’s Denis Naughten, was the unwilling central character in this unforeseen drama.
It was another dramatic twist in the political life of Denis Naughten. When Naughten started out in politics – quickly establishing himself as a politician of substance and ambition – no-one could have foreseen such colour and controversy, such sub-plots in his story. His early years as a TD were marked by competence, not controversy. He was young, energetic and talented, quickly rising up the ranks within Fine Gael, so much so that he was even touted as a possible future leader of the party.
We had no idea that the political journey of Denis Naughten would feature dramatic, unexpected turns, that events would re-shape his destiny.
It is hardly what he would have wanted. A man of principle and integrity, he is probably as surprised as anyone else to find his career stalled a second time by a second fracas with a Taoiseach.
In 2011, Naughten and Fine Gael parted company when the Roscommon TD stood his ground in the wake of the explosively controversial closure of Roscommon A&E Unit by the Enda Kenny led government.
The collapse of the friendship between Enda Kenny and Denis Naughten was complete (to be fair to Kenny, the Roscommon man had been prominent in a failed coup against the Mayo man’s leadership in 2010).
Now Roscommon Hospital-Gate left Naughten isolated from his natural political family. His stance on the hospital lost him some friends in Fine Gael in Roscommon too, but his status as the biggest political force in Roscommon was stronger than ever.
When the 2016 General Election produced a very fragmented Dáil, opportunity beckoned for Naughten. He skillfully placed himself at the centre of marathon talks on Government formation. Enda Kenny, desperate for support, and allowing pragmatism to trump pettiness, was willing to offer Naughten a ministry in return for his vote. Enda and Denis. Friends who became enemies were now colleagues.
And now Naughten’s career has taken another dramatic turn. Naughten, entirely predictably, took to Cabinet well. Few have ever doubted his ability, his suitability for ministerial office. For the first time in his career, Naughten was centre stage, in the corridors of power. It was good news for his constituency. A return to Fine Gael in the post-Kenny era seemed likely. And yet, to this observer at least, there was something almost unpalatable about the ministerial portfolio he had been given. It was extremely wide-ranging, and peppered with landmines. The future of post offices. A changing media. Denis O’Brien. RTE. Windfarms. And that wretched broadband issue.
Even his critics – of which there are few – genuinely believe that there isn’t any question of Denis Naughten seeking personal gain or acting for any dubious motive in the course of his conduct of his ministerial business. In all likelihood, his hands-on approach in terms of meeting the one remaining bidder for the NBP contract was down to Naughten’s understandable desperation to get the job done, to progress the project.
In the end, Naughten left himself open to accusations of conflict of interest. The optics did matter in the end. He fell on his sword, with honour. It is impossible not to conclude that he was naive but well intentioned. His brief was incredibly demanding. Broadband stood out. One can assume the pursuit of that elusive goal kept him awake some nights.
It was possible, as last Thursday’s drama unfolded, to feel sympathy for Denis Naughten, while also understanding Leo Varadkar’s frustration. In the end, it was what it was. And what it was, amidst confusion, anger, hurt, resentment and regret, was the public weakening of another close political bond, as Denis Naughten found himself – unexpectedly – at odds with another Taoiseach.
There will be some sympathy for Naughten in his constituency, and also some disappointment and frustration that it came to this. This constituency could do with a Minister, whether it’s Naughten or someone else. We could ill-afford to lose one. Behind the political drama, thousands of people wait with dwindling patience for broadband access. There is a real risk that the ill-fated process is now compromised and therefore many years from delivery.
Naive he may have been, and most people seem to think that Varadkar really had to abandon his minister, but there will be sympathy and support for Denis Naughten on a personal and political level. He is a very decent man, one of our own. No-one expected these career twists, this flirtation with controversy. It’s a big setback, but I can see Naughten serving in Government again (with Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil or both). In the past, he has risen, fallen and risen again. I expect him to rise again.