Belfast Telegraph

Ex-Irish minister gave perception of conflict of interest, Taoiseach says

Leo Varadkar will likely appoint a successor to Denis Naughten next week.

Ireland’s premier has said the Government’s former communications minister left himself open to the perception that he had given someone the “inside track” when it came to a multi-million euro State contract.

Denis Naughten resigned his Cabinet seat on Thursday over a series of undisclosed meetings with the last remaining bidder for a contract to roll-out high-speed broadband to more than 500,000 homes across the country.

Speaking in Cavan on Friday, Leo Varadkar said when it came to a contract as sizeable as the National Broadband Plan it was important that the process was legitimate.

I did ask him had he been in any of the other CEOs' houses and he hadn't. Therein lies the problem Leo Varadkar

“It’s not just as simple as optics, perceptions do matter and when it comes to a contract of this size, importance and cost, it has to be seen to be all above board as well,” Mr Varadkar said.

The Taoiseach added: “(Mr Naughten) left himself open to the perception of a conflict of interest, the perception that someone was given an inside track.

“I did ask him had he been in any of the other CEOs’ houses and he hadn’t. Therein lies the problem.”

It was revealed on Thursday that Mr Naughten had attended multiple private dinners with US businessman David McCourt, who is part of a consortium bidding for the lucrative contract.

At least one of the dinners was held in Mr McCourt’s home.

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Former minister for communications Denis Naughten (Brian Lawless/PA)

The details of the previously undisclosed meetings were outlined in parliament by the Taoiseach.

Mr Varadkar said Mr Naughten had informed him on Wednesday night about one dinner party he had attended at Mr McCourt’s home.

On Thursday morning, the Taoiseach said Mr Naughten then told him of at least three more dinners where the pair had met.

No officials were present at any of these dinners.

Earlier in the week members of the opposition had raised questions in the Dail over Mr Naughten’s interactions with Mr McCourt and it emerged that the minister had paid for a lunch for the businessman in Leinster house in April and the pair also had a meeting in June.

Mr Naughten had also met Mr McCourt at a dinner in New York in July.

Speaking on RTE’s Morning Ireland programme Employment Affairs Minister Regina Doherty said that it was not the number of dinners that took place between Mr Naughten and Mr McCourt, but that they should not have happened.

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Richard Bruton is the interim replacement for Denis Naughten (Niall Carson/PA)

Ms Doherty said the former minister had acted honourably by resigning and that he was “one of the most inherently decent guys in politics in Ireland”.

The Taoiseach appointed Education Minister Richard Bruton on a temporary basis to the Department of Communications.

He also set up an independent report on the National Broadband Plan to assess whether the process has been compromised.

Mr Varadkar is expected to appoint a replacement for Mr Naughten in parliament early next week.

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