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
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