Thursday, 11 October 2018
Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment: Statements
We must now proceed in accordance with an order of the House today to a statement from the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment. Following the Minister's ten minute statement, we will go to each group for eight minutes for questions and answers.
We are all here to establish facts. All the players in this controversy are entitled to their good names and their reputations should not be trampled on.
When it comes to the national broadband plan, NBP, my absolute priority has always been to ensure that high-speed broadband is provided to the more than 540,000 households and more than 1.1 million people in rural Ireland who do not currently have access to this essential service, no more and no less.
I am absolutely satisfied there has been no interference in the procurement process by me. The political and media frenzy in the last week has been deeply unhelpful. Commentary by those who are not procurement experts that the process is dead in the water and that the final bidder does not have the capacity or capability to roll out the NBP is incorrect and has been deeply damaging. Commentary such as this is where the real risk and interference with the NBP arises. The use of this language is inflammatory, inaccurate and ill-considered. It calls into question the integrity, ability and impartiality of my officials and the external advisers who have managed this procurement process, and the integrity and capability of the last remaining bidder.
We cannot halt the procurement and engage in discussions with parties that had previously been involved in the NBP procurement process, namely, Eir and SIRO. This is simply not an option open to the Government, nor is it necessary, even if it were open to Government. If we had to reset the clock, it would set the NBP back years.
Insofar as the meetings are concerned, on 26 June I attended a meeting in Leinster House at the request of my officials with representatives of the remaining bidder. I was accompanied to that meeting by the Secretary General, the Assistant Secretary with responsibility for communications, the chief technology officer and my special adviser. I am making the minutes of that meeting available on my Department’s website. The current position is that the final tender submission for the NBP was received from the remaining bidder in the NBP procurement process on 18 September. Since then, evaluation of the final tender submission has been ongoing by the NBP evaluation teams in my Department to assess the completeness, compliance and robustness of the submission and to evaluate the submission against the technical and commercial award criteria. The fact is that the NBP procurement process is subject to very strong oversight, where the Department has the assistance of expert external advisers and is supported by a procurement board and steering group with external expertise, and with an independent process auditor in place. I understand that the evaluation process is expected to conclude by the end of this month, at which stage a recommendation will then be made to Government. The real risk for the NBP now lies in loose language and irresponsible politics at this critical time in the NBP process.
I met with the Taoiseach last night and earlier today offered the following to allay the concerns of the Opposition about some of the issues that arose recently. This comprised a confidential briefing by senior members of the procurement team, including the project sponsor, programme director, chief technology officer and the process auditor to the Opposition spokespeople. The Secretary General of the Department will write to the Opposition spokespeople in this regard; a review perhaps by a former Secretary General of my role, if any, in the NBP procurement and to address, if there is a concern among the Opposition, that I would in any way second guess the outcome of an independent process recommended to me; and the assignment of responsibility for the NBP procurement to Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Kyne, who already has responsibility for a number of functions in the communications area, or to another Cabinet-level Minister. This was not accepted by An Taoiseach, who asked me to reflect on my position.
It is clear to me, therefore, that the Taoiseach does not have confidence in me. That confidence does not exist, even though I, as Minister, have introduced the first climate change national mitigation plan and national adaptation plan; secured over €22 billion in the national development plan for climate action; established a climate action fund, with an allocation of €500 million, to leverage additional public and private investment in climate action measures; developed a much higher and credible profile for Ireland at EU and international level on climate issues; introduced a settled waste policy, including the introduction of incentivised pricing for waste disposal and a comprehensive suite of measures for food waste management; provided a new funding package for over 400 anti-dumping initiatives right across the country; established the mobile phone and broadband task force, drawing together the industry, Government Departments and the regulator; developed a comprehensive suite of measures to deal with mobile phone blackspots; had the lead role in developing a Government response to issues of online safety; funded the accelerated roll-out of digital skills and trading online supports for small and micro businesses; secured a rescue package of €30 million for An Post to address its severe financial difficulties and set it back on a path of recovery; provided additional funding for the broadcasting sector of over €17 million and legislation to address the funding issues for regional broadcasters; provided an increase of €74 million in funding for energy measures, including energy efficiency and new initiatives to help the most vulnerable who are suffering health issues due to poorly insulated housing; and introduced new and innovative renewable energy and renewable heat schemes.
I am left now in the impossible, stark position a politician never wants to find himself or herself in. Do I make the decision to resign or wait for the decision to be made for me? What do I do in circumstances where the Opposition has not sought my resignation? If I was a cynic, which I am not, I believe this outcome is more about opinion polls than telecoms poles. It is more about optics than fibre optics.
The fact is that I have to meet investors, whether in telecoms, energy or any other sector. These are the people who provide jobs in this country. That is the context in which I had meetings with Mr. McCourt, and that is how it should be seen. The reality is that Mr. David McCourt has met with every single communications Minister, several members of this Government and members of the Opposition in recent years.
For my family, for my constituents, and more importantly for the 1.1 million people who are waiting for this essential service, a vital service for ordinary people in rural Ireland, I have given An Taoiseach my resignation. I wish my Cabinet colleagues well, and I would ask, most of all, that the NBP process is allowed to reach its conclusion over the next few weeks for the 1.1 million people in rural Ireland who need this infrastructure now more than ever.
Finally, I assure the House that the decisions I took as the former Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment were taken solely in the interest of bringing high-speed broadband, communication services and mobile services to every single home, business and citizen in this country, and for no other reason whatsoever.
As someone who sought this debate to try to shine a light on the status of the national broadband plan, given what has been revealed over the last couple of days, I certainly do not believe a discussion is relevant at this stage as there is no Minister here to address it. I feel great sympathy for Deputy Naughten given the decision he has had to take today. Nobody on this side of the House called for his resignation, notwithstanding the temptation that new politics presents. We sought to shine a light on a process that, as far as my party and I are concerned, is fatally flawed and fatally wounded.
That came about as a result of the withdrawal of two of the main bidders in the early part of this year and late last year. It was on this that I wanted to focus attention, to try to ensure that at some stage a contract with the capacity to deliver broadband to 542,000 homes would be signed. Deputy Naughten recognised the priority of the Taoiseach in his resigning words; it is about spin. It is about a head, and it is not about providing broadband to 542,000 homes. The Taoiseach had an objective, namely, to ensure there was a contract signing with hard hats and high vis vests, something with which we have become all too familiar. That is his approach to providing homes to the countless thousands who suffer greatly. Unfortunately, form has won out over substance.
I have to say in Deputy Naughten's favour that he is a man of substance. He certainly made mistakes along the way, and he and I have battled in this House on Question Time, Leaders' Questions and on other occasions over the approaches he took. However, I know he is a man motivated by delivery. He has not been successful. He may not have had the support of the Government. He may not have had the necessary funds to roll out broadband services. It is a disappointing day for him and his family, and it is a political blow to his constituency. However, it does not solve the problem. In allowing the House to go into a period of reflection, perhaps we should have the Taoiseach in the House before the day is out, or tomorrow, Monday or Tuesday, to explain how he intends to breathe life back into the national broadband plan. This is not about a political head or showboating. Nobody from this side of this House or from my party sought or expected this. I wish Deputy Naughten well in his career.
What has happened here today is bizarre. The Minister became a prisoner of this process. I spoke to him many times, inside and outside the House and in committee, about the dangers of the process he was getting into. We entered into a tendering process, supported by Fianna Fáil at the start, that went down a completely privatised route. The successful bidder would own the infrastructure after 25 years, subvented by a blank cheque from the taxpayer over that 25-year period. That has led us to this.
Another factor has led us to this. On the day of the press conference announcing that 300,000 households and businesses would be serviced by Eir, which would be allowed to cherry-pick the 300,000 easiest-to-reach households out of the 840,000 that had to be serviced, I told Deputy Naughten that the process had been seriously wounded. That was the second major blow to the process. We are now left with 540,000 hard-to-reach households.
I am on the record saying this many times in the House. Unless there is massive bankrolling by the State and the taxpayer, that cannot be done. ESB and Vodafone's SIRO consortium pulled out. Eir pulled out because it got what it wanted. That firm has created a doughnut around every town in this country. I do not know if those on the Government benches have looked at the maps. Eir picked up groups of houses, but the harder-to-reach businesses, houses and farms are not in the loop.
Bit by bit this has collapsed, and now one bidder is left. At the second press conference in Buswells Hotel, I confronted Deputy Naughten and pointed out to him that if one goes to the market to sell something and there is one buyer, the buyer names the price. If any Members have ever gone to a mart or market, they know what goes on. That is how simple it is. This is basic economics. Then we were left in a situation where that particular consortium flip-flopped and changed. It has now changed to be unrecognisable from what it was just six months ago. Now there is one venture capitalist upon whom the future of the Government and the broadband plan hangs, not just that of Deputy Naughten. That is the simple fact. The Government has allowed itself to be boxed into this situation. That is where we are today. That is why Deputy Naughten was compromised.
I do not believe Deputy Naughten is corrupt. However, he made a serious mistake in meeting Mr. McCourt and holding discussions. Before the committee, he admitted to holding discussions with him from last February. Then there was the dinner to which Mr. McCourt was invited in Leinster House and two other meetings that were subsequently revealed. Deputy Naughten admitted to me yesterday that he went to New York at Mr. McCourt's invitation. Mr. McCourt sought to meet me this week. I refused, and I am only an Opposition spokesperson on communications. I have no skin in this game but I thought it was the right thing to do. It would be improper to meet him at this stage in the process. This tendering process is at a delicate stage. We have arrived at an unfortunate situation. I have sympathy for Deputy Naughten over what has happened. I have a series of questions. If Deputy Naughten has resigned, who is representing the Government? Where is the Taoiseach?
Where is the Tánaiste? Government figures should come here and speak to us as Opposition spokespersons. As a rural TD, I want those 540,000 households connected. People in Laois-Offaly contact me every day looking for broadband to be rolled out to their houses, and I am sure other Members' constituents contact them. People are travelling to Dublin every day who do not need to. They could work from home or have small businesses beside their own premises. They do not have broadband. They cannot get it, and it is hurting rural Ireland.
We are also about to write a blank cheque. Some 80 people, contractors and direct staff, have been working on behalf of the Department for several years and they are paid to oversee this plan. We still cannot get this tender process in place because it is a legal, financial and logistical mess. It cannot be done. The poles they are going to string the wires on are now owned by a French capitalist, because Fianna Fáil, in the person of the then Minister, Mary O'Rourke, sold them off in 1999. We are now left in a situation where these poles are standing and the taxpayer is going to subsidise the wires on them. Deputy Naughten told us yesterday that we might use the ESB poles, which I suggested a year and a half ago.
We are left in an appalling mess. We have several questions and it is disappointing that we cannot address this in what is supposed to be the national Parliament. I believe that the process is legally flawed. It is legally and financially compromised and the taxpayer is legally and financially compromised. Moreover, this House is politically compromised if it keeps going along with this charade. We need to press the pause button. We need answers from senior people in Government about the viability and legal basis of this process, where we go from here and what we will do. I have put forward alternatives. We need to check out of this process. We need to stop here and now and hear from senior Government people about where this is going. I ask that the Taoiseach comes into the House this evening or tomorrow so that we can address these questions to him.
We came in here to ask a series of questions, primarily on the future of the national broadband plan, which is the most important piece of national infrastructure that has yet to be put in place for rural Ireland. It has been many years in gestation. Like others, I believe that it was a mistake to allow 300,000 premises to be taken out of the package to be provided under the plan. This meant that the viability of the plan was fundamentally undermined by a Government decision. It led fairly smartly to the withdrawal of number of serious telecommunications companies that had plans to bid for that package. We had the unacceptable situation of only having one bidder and an ongoing pretence that this was somehow still a competitive process.
This was further undermined when the composition of the lead bidder kept changing and many serious issues arose, some of which I posed to the Tánaiste this morning. I refer to issues around Enet's move from being the lead bidder to being a supplier and ownership moving from the lead bidder to the State.
These questions remain unanswered. What we have had here this afternoon is something much more dramatic, which is, in essence, a resignation speech from the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the likes of which I have not heard before. It was much more akin to the resignation speeches we are used to hearing in the House of Commons, from people such as Boris Johnson coming in to explain the lack of confidence he had in the Prime Minister in that instance and the Prime Minister in him.
A telling phrase was used by Deputy Naughten in what amounted to his resignation speech. Nobody on the Opposition benches called for his resignation and yet he did not feel he had the confidence of the Taoiseach. His assessment was that this was more to do with opinion polls than telecoms poles that might bring broadband into the homes of rural Ireland. These are very telling phrases from a Member of the Government up to that point in time. A reasonable request is being made by Members that the Taoiseach come into the House to explain how the NBP, one of the most important structural and infrastructural projects still to be addressed, will be implemented and advanced. He needs to explain this to us, if possible, this afternoon. I do not know about the his availability. I certainly believe what has transpired in the past short while, when those of us in opposition came to ask questions about the future of this vital infrastructure and for the Minister responsible to simply announce his resignation and leave the House, means it has been an extraordinary day even in the extraordinary annals of this particular Dáil.
The situation we are in now is thoroughly unsatisfactory. We, as the Opposition, came in with a series of questions regarding the NBP process and the relationship and meetings between the Minister, Deputy Naughten, with David McCourt. The Minister chose to resign and leave the Chamber but our questions remain and it is entirely appropriate that the Business Committee should meet and someone on behalf of the Government should have to come to the House to answer the questions that remain because the national broadband plan process still remains on track and is still moving despite the numerous problems that beset it.
We had not called for the resignation of the Minister but we thought he had serious questions to answer. He has chosen not to answer them but to pre-empt them with his resignation. This latest step of the scandal arose from Question Time yesterday, when it was fair for anyone in the Chamber to say that the Minister was evasive at best in answering questions that arose from a reply to Deputy Dooley regarding a lunch in the Members' restaurant on 18 April, the same day, ironically, the Minister was dealing in the Dáil with the previous scandal in which he was involved. The Minister is not here to defend himself but he chose not to be here to defend himself. He had to be asked three times before he gave an answer that furnished any information about the fact he was aware Mr. McCourt was in the building on that day. We had not called for his resignation but if further information had come out about it, for example any information that suggested he had met with Mr. McCourt on that day, his position would have been entirely untenable.
In any case, based on the information that was in the public domain, it was clear the Minister had broken the Department's rules, specifically relating to the NBP with regard to his interactions with Mr. McCourt. The rules are clear that meetings will only happen when absolutely necessary in exceptional circumstances and the Minister and departmental officials should try to avoid such interactions. The Minister accepted an invitation to attend a meeting on the explicit basis that the meeting was to reassure Mr. McCourt that a series of concerns that had arisen regarding the bid tender had been resolved. It related explicitly to the bid; the Minister knew about this and agreed to have the meeting. It was entirely inappropriate and represented a breach of the rules.
It was also entirely inappropriate to host a birthday party in the Oireachtas for the daughter of the only bidder left standing for one of the biggest and most high-value tenders in the history of the State. The Minister will not answer these questions. That is fine. He has chosen to resign, but we still need someone to answer these questions. In the entire process of this broadband plan we have a litany of everything that is wrong with crony capitalism and capitalism fundamentally in Ireland. It is a process whereby something that should have been a public utility was put out to private tender. All the other bidders pulled out, the cost of the tender increased subsequently and listed in the background as either a major contractor or a partner is Denis O'Brien's Actavo, which has taken over from Siteserv. There just seemed to be open door access for people such as Mr. McCourt and his family to have birthday parties in the Oireachtas, in the halls of power absolutely inappropriately.
The resignation of the Minister, Deputy Naughten, is the crescendo of a totally failed and shambolic process of privatisation of a key infrastructural project for the State. He made reference during his resignation speech to the fact the Taoiseach did not have confidence in him. If that is the case, the Taoiseach needs to come in immediately to give us his side of the story. Why did he not have confidence in the Minister?
I certainly came in here - and all Members of the Opposition have indicated the same - with an open mind as to what the fate of the Minister, Deputy Naughten, should be but that he did have to answer serious questions about the contacts he had with David McCourt, whether they were appropriate and whether they breached the rules of the tendering process. I do not know the answer to these questions but I do know that the process of rolling out the national broadband plan has been a shambolic disaster, which has reached its culmination in the resignation of the Minister and him telling us that his boss, the Taoiseach, did not have confidence in him.
We need to know the answer and, more importantly, the people of rural Ireland need to know the answer, because they are the victims of this failed process. This has its origins in the decision to privatise Eircom in the 1990s. It has gone from one failure to another. Clearly the current process is completely contaminated. We are now left with only one bidder, with whom the Minister had these contacts, who is the subject of legal action by a company in the United States because apparently while he was negotiating with this company regarding a possible takeover, he was also negotiating with the ISIF, which then bought him out. Another component to the consortium, Actavo, is being investigated regarding the sale of Siteserv by the IBRC. What a mess. It is a mess that was produced from the process of privatising and outsourcing key infrastructural projects. My God, we would never have had the ESB if we had had this sort of process to establish a company to electrify the State. This is the mess we get into when we outsource and privatise key infrastructural projects. When we add it all up, the Government stands indicted. It is a shambles on national broadband, a shambles on housing, a shambles on the health service and a shambles on climate change as we saw in the recent report.
Those basic matters have been left in a mess and now we have a bizarre twist of events with the Minister resigning because the Taoiseach had no confidence in him. The Government has some questions to answer.
As everybody else has noted this is not the event we were expecting to debate in the Dáil today. The statement from the former Minister, as he is now, raises many more questions than it solves. It is interesting that the text of the speech circulated does not reflect Deputy Naughten's comments to the Dáil. That raises questions in itself. He said in his speech it is clear to him that the Taoiseach does not have confidence in him, which is correct, but he also indicated the Taoiseach met Mr. McCourt on numerous occasions, as had other Ministers and members of the Government throughout the process. We have very serious questions that need to be answered very quickly.
What is the relationship between this Government and Mr. McCourt that has caused the resignation of a Minister already? The Government Chief Whip is trying to rally Members and make it look like there are people on the Government benches today but everybody has probably fecked off and people do not know what is happening. He is busy trying to get Ministers to turn up so somebody might be able to answer questions. There is an entire Front Bench sitting here.
Will any of them be willing or able to answer the very serious questions that need to be answered very quickly? This is a very serious issue that demonstrates the Government is totally in hock to the likes of Mr. David McCourt and others like him. How many other Ministers have met people with an influence on the decisions made by the Department? I wish the former Minister well and this is nothing personal against him. Very serious questions need to be answered very quickly by this Government.
I agree with my colleague, Deputy Pringle. The Taoiseach should come into this House to answer questions about the incredibly poor attempt made to roll out broadband to the 540,000 households that have been left down very badly over the past eight years. That is the real issue today. It seems, from the former Minister's comments, that the Taoiseach has thrown Deputy Naughten under the bus on this occasion. He has tried deflect criticism of this Government solely to this Minister but it would have served the House better if the Minister had explained exactly what contacts had taken place and where the process is right now. There should have been an explanation as to why Deputy Naughten felt at this stage the process could not be revived. There is an onus on the Taoiseach to come before us and explain why he has effectively demanded the resignation of Deputy Naughten as Minister. We need to know what the Taoiseach knows as well.
I sought this debate on Monday morning and it is a very different debate now, as others have said, from the one I anticipated. Nobody from the Opposition sought the resignation of the Minister, Deputy Naughten. Like others, I came here with a list of questions, and they will remain irrespective of who is the Minister. The process is central to what we are trying to unpick. We must be certain there is a process that we can stand over in the roll-out of national broadband. We have been here before and the problem is that questions get asked after an event. Up to now we have spent more than €500 million on tribunals and inquiries. People ask why this keeps happening and it is because we do not ask the questions in advance. We must interrogate the process properly. The process is laid out by the Department and it is not a general procedure; it is designed around the national broadband plan and how it is supposed to be managed. Did it deviate from the plan? Yes, and it did so substantially. How do we know that? The Minister has told us.
The Taoiseach had a meeting with the former Minister, Deputy Naughten, in September. He needs to come here and tell us about the briefing. Deputy Naughten has said the Taoiseach asked him to reflect on his position, and he said it was clear from this that the Taoiseach did not have confidence in him. We need to hear from the Taoiseach about the roll-out of broadband and what will happen now. We need to have answers to the questions that we are legitimately entitled to ask. We need to know whether he agrees with us about the questions that are out there.
I do not have personal animosity towards the former Minister, Deputy Naughten, but this is the second time there has been an issue. The issue earlier this year related to Independent News & Media. We must have confidence that when rules exist, we will abide by them. That is how to build confidence in a process. It is essential that the Business Committee meets today or else that the Taoiseach would come here before the close of business to take questions on the matter. We need to set out now a process to address the pertinent questions, including why we lost two bidders from the process, leaving just one, and why the competitive tension one might expect did not exist. There is also the question of how the consortium has changed since July, and we need to hear from the Taoiseach about what will happen from now on with this very large and vital infrastructure project. We must have some clarity on it as quickly as possible.
Earlier today we expressed no confidence in the Minister but it was primarily on the matter of climate change and we did not expect him to resign today only an hour later. I am sorry I was late in coming into the Chamber because I was attending a committee meeting and asking questions about broadband of our regulator. I was looking forward to asking questions about what we are going to do with the national broadband plan. These are the questions that needed to be asked today. It was not just about who the Minister met, why, where and when. That issue is complex and if Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin or others have a set position on what to do, it would be good to hear it. We will still have to resolve the question.
This is not an easy process. I was previously involved as a communications Minister in facilitating a competition for a national broadband scheme. It effectively ended up with a single bidder in the end. This experience tells me this is not an easy process but do it we must for the sake of rural Ireland. In my time as a Minister I met Mr. McCourt, who at the time was involved with some innovative investments in satellite telecommunications technology. I thought he was a good and innovative telecoms person so I will not speak ill of the man. I am providing that background information. I am not sure if Deputy Stanley has met Mr. McCourt or members of his team but I did and I know Deputy Dooley and others have done so. It is part of our job and we must become informed because we are helping to set policy. This is with the goal of addressing the question of what we do with the national broadband plan. Should we do it blind or should we try to get some understanding of it?
It was inappropriate for the former Minister to have a dinner with Mr. McCourt and pay for the lunch but this is a difficult process because politics is involved. Politics is involved with deciding whether to use Eir poles or the ESB poles. There is politics involved in getting access to land.
Politics is involved because we are on both sides of any deal. We still own or have just bought Enet again. Managing the separation of proper independent decision making and making decisions for the public good, saving money and making sure we get the best outcome for the people was always going to be a difficult political issue. This Dáil, or the next one, will still have the responsibility of doing this and I do not think going back to zero is necessarily the best outcome. Some might believe that. If that is the case, fine, set it out and we will make that decision as a Dáil but that is still a key decision ahead of us.
I will be honest. As so often happens in this world, politics trumps everything. What has happened today politically trumps any part of the assessment of the technological or economic merits of what we do with our national broadband plan because what we heard today about a Taoiseach, in advance of this sitting, effectively saying "that's it, you're gone" by not expressing confidence is the real story today. The Minister's lines could not have been more dramatic in terms of this being about opinion polls, not telecoms poles, and optics rather than fibre optics. They are about the most stunning words I have heard a Minister say as he walks out the door having resigned. What is really noticeable is the empty seat beside the Minister of State, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor. The absence of any Fine Gael Front Bench Ministers from the start of the former Minister's speech says more than anything. I know the Government Chief Whip was here. I do not know if he is still here. I saw him talking to the Ceann Comhairle. Perhaps the Ceann Comhairle can provide some information. Will the Government make a statement before the House? This is politics now. We can put aside a lot of the technical details. It is the real politics of what is happening. The question one would ask this afternoon is whether we have a Government.
I feel sorry for the former Minister. We did not have confidence in him - despite his citation of all the great things he has done - because we think the Government is not delivering. It is a "do nothing" Government in so many areas about which we have concerns. They are not all bad, obviously. They are good people, as is Deputy Naughten, but the future of the Government hangs in the balance this afternoon, which is the real story that we need to get to the bottom of and if we can, make sure that whatever we do, rural Ireland is protected in terms of whatever rural broadband plan we end up delivering for it. This is not easy. It is still a complicated political process.
At present, we are functioning within the confines of the order that was made earlier today. This allows for statements or questions from Members of the Opposition. I must apologise to members of the Government because the order does not allow for statements from this side of the House.
Deputies Fitzmaurice and Eugene Murphy are offering. The Government Chief Whip has left the Chamber to see whether it is possible to bring a revised order back to the House. As soon as he returns, we will bring it to Members' attention. Otherwise, we must work within what we have already ordered.
It is regrettable that my constituency colleague basically has been forced to resign by the Taoiseach. That is the first thing I want to put on the record. I have listened with interest. It is nearly like how it is down the country; when someone dies, everyone says how great they were once they are gone. I was at the talks about forming a Government. We spent seven hours with each Department. I have listened to what has been said today. When Eir was looking for 330,000 extra connections, which were in towns, as Deputy Stanley noted, it was said that they would not be given to it. What happened afterwards was that when a proposal was put back, our good old friends - the EU - made the State give away the good apples on the tree and left the bad apples because we could not give state aid. This needs to be put on the record.
We are hearing things about what we could hang it on. Anybody looking into this, as many of us living in rural Ireland have done, know that if we were to hang it on ESB wires, we would need electrical engineers for every part of it so that is not going to happen. The only way we can do it is through the Eir poles. Legislation was to be brought in here.
Regrettably, today has shown that public relations and how things look are more important that delivery. A Minister has been forced to resign. There might be a hair's breadth between looking for a resignation or not looking for it in some of the statements I have heard but the reality is that this evening, we must know where we are on broadband because the people of rural Ireland are the big losers today. I have heard a debate about a dinner. If any of the Members from rural parts of Ireland ever attended a mart, were about to sell an animal, had one buyer and did not sell it within the ring, they would go and talk to that buyer and see whether they could get more money. They would do a thing called horse dealing. We have become too politically correct in this country. One cannot look at or talk to a person. It is totally different if there are three or four different operations in a bidding process but the reality is that two dropped out and we had one left. Beggars cannot be choosers. If rural Ireland wants broadband, we have to persist with it. Yes, it will cost more but what do we want? Do we want a two-tier society? As I pointed out today, when four computers go on in a school near me in Kilcrone, it crashes. Do these children not deserve it? Obviously, the Taoiseach, in his better wisdom, has decided that these children in a rural part of Ireland do not deserve broadband and that it was easier to go for the good PR stunt, make sure he does not have confidence in someone, get rid of them and probably call an election, as we have been hearing over the past couple of days, for 7 December. If that is politics, it stinks.
This is a momentous afternoon, not something I had expected when I came into this House. I came in this afternoon to speak in support of Deputy Naughten as a person of integrity and honesty. I genuinely believe that. I do not believe for a second that he would act intentionally to try and influence or act inappropriately in respect of the allocation of a contract or contracts relating to the national broadband plan. I have been involved with Deputy Naughten over the past two and a half years and he has been in politics for the best part of 19 or 20 years. I do not believe for a moment that his involvement with Mr. McCourt was in any way meant to influence how those contracts were to be allocated. I believe the portrayal of his involvement with Mr. McCourt as having an ulterior motive is completely incorrect. I do not believe the former Minister acted inappropriately.
Obviously, the Taoiseach does not share my confidence. I disagreed with the former Minister on many issues, such as the attempted closure of 390 post offices, and I was deeply frustrated by the slow roll-out of rural broadband. I believe the procurement and tendering process was flawed as otherwise, why did Eir and SIRO pull out of the process? Deputy Stanley said that the allocation of the easiest 300,000 homes to Eir had a significant impact on why the other two organisations dropped out of the process.
I do not have confidence that the Government will solve these problems, including our health problems, and I do not believe it is going to deliver services to rural Ireland with regard to health, broadband or climate change. We have seen the resignation of the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, which must now call into question the ability of the Taoiseach to continue to lead this Government in a cohesive manner. That is the fundamental question that will be asked this evening. I believe the Taoiseach must come into the House and answer that question. Can he lead a Government in a cohesive manner into the future? I believe he cannot.
As a constituency colleague, I am deeply shocked and upset by the former Minister's resignation. I visited his office a few moments ago. He and his staff are quite distraught. We are of different politics in Roscommon-Galway but I worked with the former Minister for the betterment of our county and constituency.
The reality is we have lost our senior Minister. There is one person I blame for that and it is the Taoiseach because he obviously expressed no confidence in Deputy Naughten. He may have thrown Deputy Naughten under the bus but I remind the Taoiseach that the bus is still rolling down the road and he is wandering all over the road. This could be the rock on which he perishes. We have still made no progress on broadband, the constituency of Roscommon-Galway needs its national roll-out more than any other constituency in the country. It is causing small businesses to leave our constituency.
I regret what has happened. We had a good working relationship. I have known Deputy Naughten and his family for many years and it is a very sad time for them but there are many more questions to be asked about this scenario. Of course, it is all built around calling a general election and the Taoiseach is behind that.
It must be said that this is quite unprecedented. Many Members came into the House with questions they wished to put to the former Minister, Deputy Naughten, not only on meetings he had but more broadly on the broadband scheme. Deputy Naughten made a quite incredible statement. He was very angry and upset, did not take any questions, resigned as a Government Minister and left. He said he was essentially told to resign by the Taoiseach who does not have confidence in him. We do not know why the Taoiseach did not have confidence in the former Minister. He made a very explicit attack on the Taoiseach, referring to opinion polls and other matters. This is unprecedented.
We are left without answers to questions we have asked. It is important the Taoiseach comes in. I see that the Chief Whip had discussions with the spokesperson for Fianna Fáil on what might be next. He has not had any discussions with Sinn Féin, the Labour Party or anyone else. He seems to be running around like a headless chicken, and was probably caught unawares, as many on the Government benches were. It is only now that we have two senior Ministers in the House. We have never seen anything as chaotic as this in the House. It is quite disgraceful how this has been handled.
It is crucial that the Taoiseach comes to the Chamber today to clarify why he had no confidence in Deputy Naughten as Minister and the nature of that discussion and to clarify other matters. There are questions that need to be put and answered today. The only person who is now in a position to give us answers is the Taoiseach.
I think I speak for everyone on this side of the House when I say that politics can be a cruel and frankly rotten business at times. While many Members who spoke after the former Minister, Deputy Naughten, paid tribute to him and wished him well, the fact is some did not. Some Members could not even manage to do that, and wish someone from this House well as they resign.
I sat here, close to Deputy Naughten, to support him as a colleague in the Department and as Minister of State since May 2016. I am as shocked as everybody by his statement. I take this opportunity to wish him well and, on this occasion, to think of his family and his mother. We all know the trials and tribulations of politics and how it can affect family life. I also acknowledge all those who support him in his constituency who will be upset for him on a personal basis and politically this evening.
Having worked with him since May 2016, I know his energy and his commitment not only to his own constituency but to rural Ireland. He has emphasised that on so many occasions and in all our work and dealings with the Department. I have attended many, if not the majority, of the management board meetings with him and all senior officials, including the Secretary General, which receives the updates from all the different sections. All Ministers and former Ministers know how these things work. They would have gone through all the latest developments and the delays and frustrations he has had with the delays in broadband. His absolute commitment to broadband has been acknowledged by many Members at various times during parliamentary questions. He raised it so often in opposition and he really wanted the job in order to deliver broadband to rural Ireland. His commitment in recent times has been to the 540,000 homes and premises which were slated under the national broadband plan to get a high fibre broadband connection.
There is a capital provision in this year's budget under the communications section of €75 million. I was at the pre-budget discussions and negotiations with the former Minister, Deputy Naughten, and the Minister for Finance. Based on those discussions, I would have anticipated that once the plan was signed, as expected, later this year, there would be extra funds to ensure it would be rolled out from 2019. His commitment to this project has been absolute.
Members have talked about the number of people who are not connected. As the former Minister stated so many times, seven out of ten houses have access and by the end of this year, it will be eight out of ten houses. Much of that is driven by the national broadband plan. Members have said Eir has not done its work for a long number of years. However, because of the national broadband plan, it has signed up to the 300,000 commitment contract the former Minister signed it up to in order to ensure that it delivers to those houses and that progress is made and that if it does not deliver the State will fine it.
We should also acknowledge that this process started prior to the former Minister's appointment, in December 2015. It has been a prolonged, difficult process. I shared his frustration, as we all did, in regard to those people who continue to wait for connections in rural Ireland. However, from all my dealings with the former Minister, Deputy Naughten, he has shown a commitment to rural Ireland, to his constituency, counties Roscommon and Galway, and to the west of Ireland. People have had strong debates here about climate change and similar matters and I know what Deputy Naughten wanted to achieve in his Department and what he was striving to do. He had a real commitment to this whole area. It is regrettable that despite that energy and commitment that he felt the need to resign.
On a personal and professional level, I wish him the best of luck for the future. It has been a privilege to work with him in the Department over the last few years. I know the pressures he has been under for the last number of days. I attended the press conference with him yesterday. It goes with political life and we appreciate that. I know there are questions that he hoped to answer in regard to other matters and I am sure there will be another opportunity for that. The Whip will be able to outline that at another stage. I take this opportunity on behalf of the Government, before others arrive, to wish him well professionally and personally. I feel for him at this time, as a colleague and as a friend.
All of us who have known Deputy Naughten have known him to be a man who was decent, committed and a man of integrity. Whatever policy differences people might have, I do not think anyone could challenge that.
I call on the Government Chief Whip to make a proposal on further business.
I wish to advise Members that in light of Deputy Naughten's resignation as Minister, the Taoiseach has agreed to make a statement pursuant to Standing Order 45 in the House at 4.10 p.m. Normal business will continue following the conclusion of the Taoiseach's statement, if that is agreeable.