Thursday, 11 October 2018
Resignation of Minister: Statements
The national broadband plan is the Government's plan to provide high-speed broadband to every home, farm and business in the country. It will be the biggest investment in rural Ireland ever and I believe that in time it will be seen to be as significant as rural electrification was decades ago, allowing people in all parts of Ireland to access public services online and trade in the digital economy.
Since this Government of Fine Gael and Independents came to office, just over two years ago, the number of homes, farms and businesses connected to broadband has increased from 52% to over 75%. My aim is to get to 100%. Therefore, the overriding concern for me as Taoiseach and for the Government is to provide this infrastructure to the 540,000 homes, housing over 1 million people who have been waiting for it for far too long. This is my only interest when it comes to this matter.
In the interest of full disclosure, I want to put on the record of the Dáil that I met Mr. David McCourt on one occasion last March in the United States at a public event with the media present when I presented him with the SFI St. Patrick's Day Science Medal. This was reported in the media at the time. We did not discuss the national broadband programme.
Yesterday evening, I sought a meeting with the former Minister, Deputy Denis Naughten, at which I asked him to outline to me his interactions with Mr. David McCourt. I was satisfied with the explanations he gave. He subsequently contacted me, by telephone, shortly before midnight last night to inform me he had just remembered that he had a private dinner with Mr. McCourt in Mr. McCourt's home in 2017. This was organised by the Minister of State, Deputy Pat Breen, who was also present. Deputy Naughten suggested that, in order to protect the national broadband plan project, he be reshuffled to another Ministry or that responsibility for broadband be assigned to another Minister. I said that I would reflect on that overnight and meet him in the morning.
I met Deputy Naughten this morning and during the meeting he informed me that he had at least three other private dinners with Mr. McCourt. There were no officials present and there are no minutes. He had not informed me of these additional meetings, either when we met yesterday or when we met last night.
I have no doubt that his intentions were honourable at all points but I do believe he left himself open to allegations of a conflict of interest and an inappropriate relationship with Mr. Mc McCourt, which could have in turn brought the process into question, thus potentially jeopardising the project in its entirety. Ultimately, as Minister he had a decision-making role and it would have been his responsibility to bring to the Cabinet the memo to gain the approval of the Government for the awarding of any contract. As a result of this, I asked him to reflect on his position. He asked that he be allowed to explain his position to the Dáil, to which I agreed. I have since received his resignation in writing and I have accepted it.
I am assigning the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Richard Bruton, on a temporary basis to the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment.
I have sought a report from Mr. Peter Smyth, the independent process auditor for the national broadband programme, in order to assess whether or not the process has been compromised.
I deeply regret that these events have happened but I believe that, in resigning, Denis has acted in the public interest. I am determined to see the national broadband plan through to completion.
Sometimes there are days when I have to make decisions that may cause deep personal distress to others but are necessary for the good of the country. Today is one of those days. I have known Denis for over 20 years. We were in Young Fine Gael together and I have had nothing but respect for him as a person and a politician. I know today is a difficult day for Denis and those close to him. However, my job as Taoiseach must always be to put the public interest first.
I thank the House for its patience and understanding regarding this unexpected turn of events today.
It is with some sadness that we heard today of the resignation of Deputy Denis Naughten. I have known Denis personally for quite a long time. I knew his late father, who was a Member of this House also. Obviously, it is a very difficult and sad day for the Deputy and his family and supporters.
That said, we did raise very legitimate issues over the rolling out of the national broadband plan, which was announced as far back as 2012. Precious little progress has been made. The tendering has been tortuously slow and the result is that many people have been deprived of broadband. More fundamentally, we raised yesterday a very basic question. The Taoiseach confirmed today in his remarks that Deputy Naughten, as Minister, would have been the ultimate decision-maker in terms of bringing a memo to the Cabinet with a view to having a decision made on the tender on the bid. That is the very point I made yesterday in this House, and I was attacked for making it. I made it in good faith. Officeholders and the decision-maker on such a substantial tender have to be insulated from any perception of favouritism or of being open to lobbying or being canvassed. That was the context of the dinner in the United States and of people's reservations and misgivings about it. The Taoiseach has now given the Dáil additional information on a further series of meetings with Mr. McCourt.
We continue to have very significant issues around the bidding process, not least being all the transactions that seem to have taken place, coincidentally, in terms of change of ownership.
There has been a fundamental change in the composition of the consortium. The original Enet bid and the make-up of that consortium do not bear any real or substantial resemblance to the final consortium that is now in play for the award of the tender. While there might have been a certain desperation on the part of the Government - I do not know the motivation behind it - to get some type of deal over the line given the delay, it is extremely important that we get it right and that what is happening here is proper. That is the fundamental point and the House must uphold it. That is and will continue to be our focus in the coming weeks.
I recall meeting the officials in the Department in the aftermath of the 2016 general election when we were all exercised about broadband. They were at pains to point out the sensitivity regarding this issue. They said they would be issuing the tender documents around that time. That is why many of us were flabbergasted that the Minister, the ultimate decision maker, would meet with a lead member of one of the consortia. Not only I but many people from different perspectives could not get our heads around that. It is a very difficult day personally for Deputy Denis Naughten, but given what the Taoiseach has said and in light of all that has now been revealed in terms of the series of private dinners and so forth, I believe he made the right decision. I do not know the reason or motivation but there are serious questions about this bidding and tendering process from our perspective, particularly the latter part of it. There was the exit of SIRO and Eir, it was down to one bidder, the composition of the bidder changed hands, people were selling shares and so forth. This does not sit well when one examines it, even if there may be explanations. There were new players coming in and other players leaving.
I only have five minutes and I appreciate the time. However, when members of the Opposition raise legitimate questions they should be listened to and perhaps answers could be given or there could be some effort to try to understand where people are coming from in trying to get to the bottom of these issues.
This is a quite a fiasco. In a depressing way, it serves to underscore the unhealthy and inappropriate relationships in what I classify as the insider class in this State, the cosy dining relationships between influential and wealthy people and senior politicians. Then the same people bid for business contracts and the relationships unfold. Tribunal after tribunal has demonstrated the toxicity of those relationships-----
-----yet they prevail. The Taoiseach said that he feels compassion for Deputy Denis Naughten and I understand that on a human level, but the real casualties here are, first, the 542,000 households that still await this fabled broadband and, second, the process itself. The Taoiseach has conceded that the process may well be compromised. He will ask Mr. Peter Smyth to carry out a review. Given that the Minister had repeated dining engagements with Mr. McCourt, there is no doubt that the process has been compromised. It is now simply a question of degree. Of course, due process will be observed and the review will be carried out. However, the terrible vista under the Taoiseach's watch is that his Minister's relationship with the sole remaining bidder might have compromised the entire exercise and set the clock back to zero. That is profoundly shocking.
The Taoiseach mentioned that the Minister of State, Deputy Breen, was also party to these arrangements. Can the Taoiseach confirm that he is still a Minister of State?
I will pose the question and the Taoiseach might avail of the earliest opportunity to answer it. There was no option for Deputy Denis Naughten - it was either walk or be told to leave. That much is clear. However, there is still a question regarding the Minister of State. In fact there is a question around the entire Administration at this stage. Day by day it becomes more ragged at the edges. What is happening with the Minister of State? When will the review process by Mr. Peter Smyth be concluded?
Finally, the Taoiseach may have made the right decision after the midnight call from Deputy Denis Naughten, but the cosy nudge and wink politics between the Irish political establishment and very wealthy people is clearly alive and well.
Politics is a human endeavour and on a personal basis this is a difficult day for Deputy Denis Naughten and his friends and family. After the mire of controversy more than 20 years ago that led to the Moriarty tribunal, we repeatedly set out strict codes of conduct for how to handle any contract of the State and certainly any major procurement, right down to individual projects. It is crystal clear to everybody that decision makers, and ultimately the Minister is responsible in a Department, cannot have direct contact with bidders. In the last 24 hours I spoke to a person who was involved with procurement. The person said that they would actually cross the road if they saw somebody involved in the bidding process coming towards them. That level of care has been seared into the public service in respect of the awarding of contracts as a result of the very damaging things that happened in the State 20 years ago. It was disquieting, to put it at its mildest, that there was this series of contacts. On a personal basis, I know Deputy Denis Naughten to be a most honourable man and I have known him for many years. He did the right thing by standing aside.
The Taoiseach said that rural broadband, the project of the national broadband plan, is the most important infrastructure project for the Government. It is the most important infrastructure project for Ireland, particularly rural Ireland, but where are we now? As I said last year, allowing 300,000 of the potential clients of the broadband plan to be taken out by Eir was a fatal blow to the plan. Subsequent to that many of the bidders withdrew. The Taoiseach is left with a consortium that resembles Lanigan's ball because at any given point one is not sure who is part of it. I was really confused when the lead bidder, Enet, suddenly became a supplier and the lead bidder became a consortium led by a US-based finance house. For the people of Ireland, the most fundamental question is: what is the current position of the broadband plan? The Taoiseach's response so far is that a review of the probity of the process to date is to be carried out by an ethics person. That is not good enough. There must be a clear direction from the Taoiseach very quickly on how this plan is to be put back in place. There is no need for an expert in probity.
The Tánaiste is sitting beside the Taoiseach.
It is odd that this morning the line taken by the Tánaiste was strongly in defence of what happened despite that the Taoiseach effectively fired former Minister, Deputy Denis Naughten, last night when he asked him to consider his position. We now need to accept that what has happened to date has undermined the broadband plan and we need to work collectively to get the plan back on track. The most important outcome in terms of this debacle must be that the many people in rural Ireland, including in my constituency and across every county, who are crying out for equality in terms of broadband connectivity will be connected. I hope that Deputy Bruton, who has been appointed as Minister on a temporary basis, will quickly acquaint himself with all of the elements and come back to the House in the coming days with a set of solutions regarding the provision of rural broadband.
I am sharing time with Deputy Boyd Barrett. I have no personal animosity towards former Minister, Deputy Denis Naughten, but if what the Taoiseach has said is correct - and I have no reason to believe it is not - then his position was untenable. The fact that the former Minister had multiple private dinners with Mr. McCourt and did not disclose them to the public or this House on the many occasions he was asked about his contact with Mr. McCourt meant his position was untenable. This raises a much broader question about the relationships between the economic elite in this country and some top politicians and the ability of the former to have access to the latter. It definitely raises questions in respect of the Minister of State, Deputy Breen, whom I Taoiseach referred to as having organised the dinner. Did the Minister of State also attend the dinner with then Minister and Mr. McCourt?
The Taoiseach referred to the need to put the public interest first. Above all, this relates to the question of broadband. In order to put the public interest first in the context of the national broadband plan, we need to call a halt to the fiasco that has been this process. It has utterly failed in terms of delivering value for money and delivery of access to broadband for people in rural areas. It should have been provided as a public utility by a public body. This is the process that should now take place.
The other fiasco that should now be put out of its misery, in my opinion, is the Government. The Government now has no effective majority. If Fianna Fáil abstain, if the so-called Independents vote against the Government and if Deputy Denis Naughten comes to the Opposition side, the Government does not have a majority. We know from what happened last week in terms of the budget that the Government also has no orientation to dealing with the fundamental crisis people face, namely, that relating to housing. This is the reason it passed a landlords' budget and the reason it did effectively nothing in terms of the question of social housing. In my opinion, this Dáil should now, as quickly as is possible, pass the abortion legislation and should then be dissolved and we should have an election and let the people decide.
I came into the House with an open mind. I do not have evidence to question the integrity of former Minister, Deputy Denis Naughten, but what the Taoiseach has revealed about private meetings between the former Minister and Mr. McCourt means there was no doubt but that he had to resign. It is somewhat shocking that it has taken until now to reveal that these meetings took place. Despite the fiasco regarding the rural broadband plan and the tendering process we are only now discovering that these meetings took place and that Minister of State, Deputy Breen, also attended those meetings, which means he also has very serious questions to answer. It is clear that the Enet bid is hopelessly compromised on the basis of these meetings and other issues that have been raised, with one part of the consortium being investigated in the context of the sale of Siteserv to the Irish Bank Resolution Corporation, IBRC, and legal action being taken in the United States against another part of that consortium regarding its communications with the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund while it was involved in negotiations with that body. The whole process is hopelessly compromised.
The Taoiseach stated that he is as committed to rural broadband as the State was to rural electrification. I put it to him that if rural electrification had been handled in the shambolic way in which rural broadband has been handled, we would still be reading by candlelight. The plan is a disaster. Rural electrification was provided through a State company. That is how we transformed this country. The shambolic process of privatisation, outsourcing and the inevitable problem of the relationships of private sector interests with the State has once again been revealed. We saw it revealed in the context of the Moriarty tribunal and in the relationship between Governments and IBRC. Incredibly, the more things change, the more things stay the same. We now see that again in the context of the national broadband plan. The Government has to go in order that these issues can be debated by the people.
The real losers in this process are the people of rural Ireland, particularly those who do not have broadband and may now never get it. These same people would also have lost out if the Government had proceeded with the current plan in that the Irish people would have ended up paying through the nose for a system that probably would not work. I agree with previous speakers that the Government needs to implement a rural broadband system that will be in the ownership of the people and will be for the people, not the wealthy and other individuals who have a direct line to Ministers.
The Taoiseach stated that he met Mr. McCourt in New York. Is it likely that over the next few days we will hear of further meetings between Mr. McCourt and the Taoiseach and other Ministers in this Government, which appears to be the way in terms of the broadband process? The Taoiseach stood by former Minister, Deputy Denis Naughten, when he said that he had no part in the discussions on the matter and that his officials were making the decisions. We all know that is not how the system works. A secondary school student knows that a Minister is a corporation sole and that he or she is responsible for everything that his or her Department does. However, the Taoiseach and his Government appear not to know that. We need a process the people of rural Ireland can stand by, one that looks after and protects them. Unfortunately, this Government will not do that.
I am not going to try to defend the mistakes made by former Minister, Deputy Denis Naughten. One of the most nauseating aspects of this strange place is the head-hunting that takes occurs. More often than not, it is linked to political expediency rather than the serious problem of how the system operates. Personal attacks in the context of head-hunting, when there is so much more to an issue, are not nice.
The Government threw Deputy Fitzgerald under the bus. We were very critical of her as Minister for Justice and Equality but we did not go after her head. The third interim report of the disclosures tribunal was published earlier by Mr. Justice Charleton. It is an excellent report. It does no harm to Deputy Fitzgerald or to the Comptroller and Auditor General - the same Comptroller and Auditor General that the Government allowed the Department of Finance and the then Minister for Finance to challenge.
He did a wonderful job on his investigation into how the process was handled on Project Eagle and he got bugger all support from the Government. What the Government has done has changed bugger all. It can get rid of the former Minister, Deputy Denis Naughten, for making mistakes and it can also get rid of other Ministers but what changes? How are things being done differently? The National Asset Management Agency, NAMA, has cost more than €20 billion but the Government does not want to know and is prepared to turn a blind eye to it. The malpractice is frightening and the Government does not want to know.
I gave the Taoiseach the benefit of the doubt and I still respect him but the Government's failure to deal with the housing crisis is mind-boggling. The way the Government is approaching the crisis will not sort it out and is unfair to the people of Ireland. I honestly believe the Taoiseach should dissolve this Parliament, call an election and let the Irish people decide where we will go from here. God knows what the mix will be afterwards but the Taoiseach should give people a chance to decide. This has been a dog's dinner of a place since 2016. The confidence and supply arrangement is nonsense, rubbish. Fine Gael could even form a proper coalition with Fianna Fáil or Sinn Féin afterwards but it is in the interests of the people that the Government go to the country and let it decide. This is the craziest building on the planet.
This is an extraordinary afternoon. The additional information about three meetings comes as another shock. I assume the former Minister, Deputy Denis Naughten, assured the Taoiseach that there was no impropriety in what was discussed at the dinners. However, the perception is that influence could have been exerted on the allocation of the contracts. If that is the case, and we have not yet heard from the former Minister about the issue, it made his position untenable and we have to accept that. Surely the position of the consortium must also be called into question because if the Taoiseach contends the former Minister acted in an inappropriate manner, he must also believe that the consortium acted in an inappropriate manner and can no longer remain as the bidder for the national broadband plan. That would leave rural Ireland waiting for broadband for many years to come, which would be a most unfortunate outcome of this process.
Also, if the Taoiseach believes Deputy Naughten acted with impropriety, he must also believe that those who arranged the meetings acted inappropriately. This calls into question the position of the Minister of State, Deputy Pat Breen, a constituency colleague of mine. I would not attack the Minister of State on a personal level but if he has been involved in this process, he also has questions to answer. Most important, the Taoiseach has questions to answer on his ability to continue to lead this Government in a cohesive manner. His position has been undermined in this process as well. The issues are much wider than rural broadband and the former Minister, Deputy Naughten. They go to the heart of Government and the Taoiseach must explain how he can continue to govern in a cohesive manner.
On a personal level this is obviously a difficult day for Deputy Naughten and his family. He did not have any option but to resign given the information that we now have. I question the Peter Smyth report process and what exactly Mr. Smyth will examine. I echo the point made by Deputy Harty. I cannot make any sense of the consortium that has been in place since July. It raises obvious questions, including why the other two consortia dropped out of the tender process. What will Mr. Peter Smyth examine? Does it not raise questions that the remaining consortium is made up of subcontractors, including Nokia and Actavo, formerly Siteserv, that have no equity, or that the main bidder became a partner? None of this makes sense. It will be important to find out whether the previous consortia had the same access to the former Minister? That will tell us if there was an issue with the process early on because the previous consortia cited regulatory and governance issues. It is important that we get to that.
I also echo the point made about probity in connection with the Minister of State, Deputy Pat Breen. We have to hear from the Taoiseach on that. Gone are the days when decisions were made based on personal relationships. We put systems in place for very good reasons. Those systems must be abided by and we must have a transparent process that we and members of the public can have confidence in. Failing that, we will repeat the mistakes of the past. Please let us learn from history in respect of this experience and previous experiences. We need to hear from the Taoiseach on what this process involves. It must be a wider process in regard to engagement with the House because all of us are interested in it. There is not one Deputy who is not interested in the roll-out of the national broadband plan. We all agree that it is essential but it must be done in a way that people can have confidence in it.
We all have personal sympathy for the former Minister, Deputy Naughten, but there was an immediate and collective realisation in this Chamber, when the Taoiseach detailed in two or three sentences four previous dinners, that this was not optics and the Minister had to resign. That is regrettable for him and his family but there was no doubt or question about that when we heard that. I do not know if the Taoiseach will be able to answer the question that arises concerning the Minister of State, Deputy Pat Breen. Whatever about the propriety of arranging the dinner in the first place, when the Minister of State became aware that there was controversy surrounding the dinner in Manhattan, why did he not inform the Taoiseach or the Dáil? That is the question the Taoiseach must answer first and foremost. The failure to reveal that information surely means the Minister of State's position is in question.
The Department also has questions to answer. My experience in a similar role and position, about which I spoke earlier, was that the Department guarded me every moment of the day and night. Who knew about the other dinners? Did the Department know? Everyone asked at the time why the Department allowed the Minister to go to the dinner in New York? What were officials thinking? I am interested to find out what the Department knew because, as Deputy Catherine Murphy correctly said, we must learn the lessons from the Moriarty tribunal. While I am not drawing a direct analogy because the circumstances are different, that Department, more than any other, should finally answer some questions. In my experience, the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources was incredibly sensitive to the issue of processing tenders.
More than anything else, the question that now arises is what will happen next? I suggest that after the Dáil adjourns, we have a meeting of the Business Committee because we should have a special Dáil session on Tuesday to debate an issue raised by several previous speakers, namely, what will happen to the national broadband plan. To be honest, from what we have heard it is incredibly difficult to see how the plan can be delivered in its current format. We should give ourselves the weekend to consider the complexity of that issue and come back and debate it on Tuesday. Rather than leaving it to Mr. Smyth to investigate the issue of propriety, we should consider what we are doing with rural broadband. As I said earlier, that is the key question we must address.