Naugh­ten’s four din­ners too much for Leo to stom­ach

Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Min­is­ter did not want to go but without Taoiseach’s sup­port was left with lit­tle choice, writes Philip Ryan

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - News -

AT one point dur­ing his meet­ing with De­nis Naugh­ten in Govern­ment Build­ings last Thurs­day morn­ing, the Taoiseach had to leave the room to take a phone call.

When he left, the Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Min­is­ter, his two po­lit­i­cal ad­vis­ers and the Taoiseach’s chief of staff, Brian Mur­phy, sat in si­lence. The con­ver­sa­tion had been tense.

Naugh­ten was fight­ing for his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer and Leo Varad­kar was not throw­ing him a life­line.

The In­de­pen­dent min­is­ter thought he could rea­son with the Taoiseach. He asked if he could move from his port­fo­lio or if an­other min­is­ter could over­see the Govern­ment’s broad­band strat­egy while the State li­cence was be­ing sold. He sug­gested an ex­ter­nal re­view of his role in the process.

Naugh­ten didn’t want to go. He felt he still had a ser­vice to of­fer the coun­try. There was work left to be done. The Taoiseach told him the op­tics of his meet­ing with US busi­ness­man David Mc­Court did not look good.

Mc­Court was cen­tral to a mul­ti­mil­lion euro con­sor­tium bid­ding for the State’s broad­band li­cence and it emerged Naugh­ten had met him sev­eral times for pri­vate din­ners dur­ing the ten­der­ing process.

One of those din­ners took place in Mc­Court’s hol­i­day home in Co Clare. The meet­ing was at­tended and or­gan­ised by Fine Gael ju­nior min­is­ter Pat Breen. At least one of the other din­ners took place in The Mer­rion ho­tel, op­po­site Govern­ment Build­ings. Most of the meet­ings took place when Mc­Court’s con­sor­tium was the sole re­main­ing bid­der.

Varad­kar told Naugh­ten Fianna Fail would soon be call­ing for his res­ig­na­tion and asked him to “re­flect on his po­si­tion”.

Naugh­ten was fum­ing. Af­ter the meet­ing, he went back to his of­fice to gather his thoughts and pre­pare for a Dail de­bate on the con­tro­versy. He had never been ac­cused of im­pro­pri­ety at any point in his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer. He was seen as a straight shooter, one of the good guys in pol­i­tics.

There is a dis­pute over what ex­actly the Taoiseach knew about Naugh­ten’s meet­ings with Mc­Court be­fore that meet­ing last Thurs­day morn­ing.

The pre­vi­ous evening at around 8.30pm, they met to dis­cuss the grow­ing con­tro­versy. Varad­kar said he did not want a drip feed of in­for­ma­tion com­ing out and asked Naugh­ten to clearly set out his deal­ings with the busi­ness­man.

Be­fore this, it had emerged Naugh­ten had a pri­vate din­ner with Mc­Court in New York. Depart­ment of Com­mu­ni­ca­tions of­fi­cials also at­tended. It also came to light that Naugh­ten or­gan­ised for Mc­Court and his daugh­ter to have lunch in the Dail restau­rant. Naugh­ten paid for the lunch but did not at­tend.

The Taoiseach pub­licly de­fended Naugh­ten af­ter these rev­e­la­tions but now he wanted the full facts.

At around 11.30pm last Wed­nes­day, Naugh­ten called the Taoiseach to de­tail the other meet­ings he had with Mc­Court. What was said de­pends on who you ask.

Naugh­ten says he told the Taoiseach he had four pri­vate din­ners with Mc­Court, in­clud­ing one in the busi­ness­man’s Co Clare home.

Varad­kar says he only told him about the din­ner in Mc­Court’s home, or­gan­ised by Breen. Yes­ter­day, the Taoiseach’s spokesper­son said Breen had not pre­vi­ously told Varad­kar about the meet­ing. Why Breen did not tell him is un­clear.

Ei­ther way, Varad­kar woke up the next morn­ing know­ing the con­tro­versy was not go­ing away any time soon.

It is also worth not­ing that Naugh­ten was asked at a Bud­get press con­fer­ence last Wed­nes­day if he had any other in­for­mal meet­ings with Mc­Court, apart from the New York din­ner. He replied: “Not that I re­call.”

Last Thurs­day morn­ing, while ap­pear­ing on a break­fast tele­vi­sion show, the Taoiseach was asked if he was sat­is­fied with Naugh­ten’s ex­pla­na­tions about his meet­ings with Mc­Court. He replied: “So far, yes.”

It was not pub­lic knowl­edge yet but the Taoiseach knew at that stage that Naugh­ten had at­tended a pri­vate din­ner in Mc­Court’s home.

If Naugh­ten is to be be­lieved, Varad­kar knew about all four pri­vate din­ners.

On Vir­gin Me­dia One’s Ire­land AM, Varad­kar said he wanted Naugh­ten to have the op­por­tu­nity to out­line his po­si­tion in the Dail. All this was be­fore he held his meet­ing with Naugh­ten at 11.30am last Thurs­day morn­ing.

At mid­day, while the crit­i­cal meet­ing was hap­pen­ing, Tanaiste Si­mon Coveney came un­der in­tense scru­tiny from op­po­si­tion par­ties over Naugh­ten’s in­ter­ac­tions with Mc­Court. The Tanaiste was asked if he could stand over Naugh­ten’s ac­tions and whether he still had con­fi­dence in the min­is­ter.

Coveney said he spoke to Naugh­ten that morn­ing and was given a short brief­ing on his deal­ings with Mc­Court.

“Noth­ing he told me this morn­ing un­der­mines my con­fi­dence in him,” Coveney said.

“Mem­bers should give him the time and space to out­line in de­tail the meet­ings he has had with David Mc­Court and the na­ture of those meet­ings so we can try to put this is­sue to bed,” he added.

The Op­po­si­tion con­tin­ued to pep­per him with ques­tions but Coveney was happy to bat them away and de­fend Naugh­ten ahead of his 3pm ap­pear­ance in the Dail.

When the time came, Naugh­ten walked down the steps into the cham­ber and took his seat be­side ju­nior min­is­ters Mary Mitchell O’Connor and Sean Kyne.

He read as­sertively from a pre-pre­pared script.

He said the “me­dia and po­lit­i­cal frenzy” around the con­tro­versy had been “deeply un­help­ful” to the process of se­cur­ing na­tional broad­band for more than one mil­lion peo­ple.

He out­lined the sug­ges­tions he made to the Taoiseach about an ex­ter­nal re­view of his ac­tions and the ap­point­ment of an­other min­is­ter to over­see the broad­band process.

“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,” Naugh­ten said.

Op­po­si­tion TDs were stunned, as was Mary Mitchell O’Connor who looked up at her fel­low Cabi­net min­is­ter in dis­be­lief. Fianna Fail had not called for his res­ig­na­tion and nei­ther had Sinn Fein.

Naugh­ten said he was in an “im­pos­si­ble” and “stark po­si­tion” that a politi­cian never wants to find him­self in. “Do I make the de­ci­sion to re­sign or wait for the de­ci­sion to be made for me?” he asked. He won­dered aloud what he should do in cir­cum­stances where the Op­po­si­tion has not sought his 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,” he said.

He fin­ished by con­firm­ing he had given his res­ig­na­tion to the Taoiseach, cer­e­mo­ni­ously bowed to­wards the Ceann Comhairle, and left the cham­ber.

Fol­low­ing op­po­si­tion de­mands, the Taoiseach en­tered the Dail at 4.35pm to ad­dress the con­tro­versy. He re­vealed pub­licly for the first time the de­tails of the meet­ing in Mc­Court’s home, which he said he was told of the pre­vi­ous evening. Varad­kar said Naugh­ten only told him of three other din­ners that morn­ing. He said the min­is­ter left him­self open to ac­cu­sa­tions of con­flicts of in­ter­est.

“I deeply re­gret that these events have hap­pened but I be­lieve that, in re­sign­ing, De­nis has acted in the pub­lic in­ter­est,” he added.

Later that evening, Naugh­ten was in­ter­viewed on RTE’s Six One News. He con­tra­dicted the Taoiseach’s ver­sion of events and said the op­tions he set out for deal­ing with the con­tro­versy “didn’t suit the Taoiseach’s plans”. He did not say what he be­lieved the Taoiseach’s plans to be.

Naugh­ten stuck to his ver­sion of event when in­ter­viewed on his lo­cal ra­dio sta­tion last Fri­day morn­ing while the Taoiseach stood by his Dail com­ments when he was in­ter­viewed dur­ing a visit to Mon­aghan. He said he asked Naugh­ten if he had din­ner in the houses of any other busi­ness peo­ple seek­ing the State broad­band con­tract and he said he had not.

Sources close to Naugh­ten this week­end said he is still very bruised by the ex­pe­ri­ence and feels he has been let down by the Taoiseach.

The Taoiseach’s camp said Naugh­ten had to go be­cause the num­ber of meet­ings kept in­creas­ing. Govern­ment sources de­scribed Pat Breen’s in­volve­ment as “mar­ginal” and “in­ci­den­tal” de­spite the Taoiseach’s crit­i­cism of the din­ner meet­ing last Fri­day.

‘This is more about opin­ion polls than tele­coms poles’

BUSI­NESS­MAN: David Mc­Court

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