Ireland’s government has been called into question following the unexpected resignation of one of its ministers amid controversy over the State’s national broadband plan.
The country’s premier Leo Varadkar revealed details on Thursday evening of previously undisclosed meetings between the former communications minister and the head of a consortium bidding for the multi-million euro contract to provide rural broadband.
Denis Naughten resigned his Cabinet seat on Thursday afternoon over a series of meetings with US businessman David McCourt, who is leading the sole remaining bid for a contract to supply roll-out high-speed broadband to more than 500,000 homes across the country.
Mr Naughten told parliament it was clear Mr Varadkar did not have confidence in him and he had been left in an “impossible stark position” that a politician never wanted to find themselves in.
“Do I make the decision myself to resign or wait for that decision to be made for me? And what do I do against the backdrop of the opposition not having sought my resignation?” he said.
“If I was a cynic, which I’m not, the outcome is about polls rather than telecoms poles, it’s more about optics than fibre optics.”
The former minister had been due to answer questions from the opposition over his dealings with Mr McCourt.
It emerged on Wednesday that the minister had paid for a lunch for the businessman in Leinster house in April and the pair also had a meeting in June.
It followed revelations that Mr Naughten met Mr McCourt at a New York dinner in July.
Speaking in the Dail on Thursday evening Mr Varadkar said that he had received a phone call from Mr Naughten late on Wednesday night informing him that “he had just remembered” that he had another meeting with Mr McCourt, a private meeting in the businessman’s home in 2017, which had been organised by junior minister Pat Breen.
Mr Varadkar said: “Deputy Naughten suggested that in order to protect the national broadband project he be reshuffled to another ministry or the responsibility of broadband be assigned to another minister.
“I said I’d reflect on that overnight and meet him in the morning.”
On Thursday morning, the Taoiseach said, Mr Naughten informed him about “at least three other private dinners” with Mr McCourt.
By doing so, Mr Varadkar said Mr Naughten had left himself “open to allegations of a conflict of interest” and of an “inappropriate” relationship with McCourt and potentially put the entire broadband project in jeopardy.
The Taoiseach appointed Education Minister Richard Bruton on a temporary basis to the Department of Communications.
He also set up an independent report on the National Broadband Plan to assess whether the process has been compromised.
Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin said his party had raised very legitimate concerns over the tendering process.
Mr Martin said he was “flabbergasted” as were other opposition members that the “the ultimate decision maker” was meeting one of the bidders.
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald said: “In a very depressing way it serves to underscore the unhealthy and inappropriate relationships within what I would classify the insider class in this state.
“Cosy dinning relationships between very influential and very wealthy people and senior politicians and then those same people bid for contracts for business.”
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that the process has been compromised,” she said.