Will auditor’s report clear former Comms Minister Denis Naughten of allegations that he influenced tender process?
Taoiseach-appointed auditor Peter Smyth’s report into the troubled procurement process for the National Broadband Plan (NBP) will be brought to Cabinet this week.
The report was delivered to Government last week, was reviewed by Attorney General Séamus Woulfe and was sent to all parties involved.
The report was commissioned by An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, TD, in October after former Communications Minister Denis Naughten, TD, sensationally resigned. He did so after his position became seemingly untenable in light of reports he had met the sole remaining bidder for the NBP contract, David C McCourt, on a number of occasions during the process. His resignation threw the entire process into disarray.
According to The Irish Times, citing sources, the report is expected to exonerate Naughten and McCourt from any impropriety in relation to the procurement process.
Will there be a plan B?
The situation has also prompted speculation that the Government may be considering a ‘plan B’ that involves semi-State bodies.
The report will be brought to Cabinet this week by replacement Communications Minister Richard Bruton, TD.
Prior to the report’s publication, a political spin machine appeared to whir into action in recent weeks, with various newspaper reports appearing to undermine the original plan and suggesting it would cost up to €3bn to implement.
The NBP was an intervention policy that began in Ireland in 2012, with an estimated cost growing to €1bn. It aimed to deliver fibre to the home (FTTH) and other technologies to 542,000 premises in rural Ireland deemed not commercially viable by telecoms companies. The plan also garnered support from the European Investment Bank, which approved €500m in funding for the process.
The NBP procurement process was criticised by telecoms operators as being too complex and convoluted, and saw various bidders, including Eir and Siro, walk away in the past year.
That left the final consortium, Enet-SSE, in the race. In recent months, Scottish infrastructure giant SSE left the consortium, casting doubt over the future of the NBP.
Prior to Naughten’s resignation, Granahan McCourt announced a final bid, leading a consortium consisting of Denis O’Brien’s engineering services firm, Actavo, as well as Enet, tech giant Nokia, Kelly Group and KN Group. The consortium proposed to go beyond the 30Mbps in the tender and provide 1Gbps services across Ireland.
Also prior to the resignation, McCourt’s company, Granahan McCourt, sold its remaining 22pc in Enet to the Irish Infrastructure Fund, ostensibly to free McCourt’s company up to focus exclusively on the NBP.
With the original NBP in tatters, it will remain to be seen if the Government Cabinet reveals a viable replacement plan this week.
Updated, 3.04pm, 27 November 2018: This article was amended to clarify that the latest consortium bidding is led by Granahan McCourt, with Enet as one of the partners.