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Tánaiste defends 'straight politician' Denis Naughten amid lobbyist controversy

Under-fire communications minister Denis Naughten is a straight politician, the Dail has been told.

Tanaiste Simon Coveney has been forced to defend his party colleague amid a controversy surrounding a telephone conversation with a lobbyist.

Batting away persistent allegations of "old style politics" and "cronyism", Mr Coveney told TDs during Leaders' Questions: "Yes, I do have confidence in Denis Naughten as minister.

"I have known him for 20 years and I know him as a straight minister just as he is a straight politician."

Tanaiste Simon Coveney

Earlier on Thursday, Mr Naughen said he sincerely regretted expressing his personal opinion to PR executive Eoghan O Neachtain, acting for Independent News and Media (INM) in relation to the company's proposed takeover of Celtic Media.

He said he did not disclose confidential information in relation to his decision to refer the INM's proposed move to regulator Broadcast Authority of Ireland (BAI) and had only spoken about information already in the public domain at the time.

He also claimed he was not responsible for the way in which the conversation was interpreted or relayed.

Mr Coveney added: "He (Mr Naughten) regrets the fact that this conversation took place but in my view he didn't do anything that constitutes giving inappropriate information to anybody."

Among the fiercest critics in the Dail was Sinn Fein's Pearse Doherty who claimed the minister's explanation "stretches the bounds of credibility".

"Mr O Neachtain was hardly phoning the minister for a personal view. Is that what you believe that this was?" he asked the Tanaiste.

"We all know that he rang him because he was the minister.

"He was the minister with the regulatory and statutory responsibility in respect of referring the takeover bid to the BAI."

Communications minister Denis Naughten

The Donegal TD later added: "What we have here is an example of old style politics of the golden circle variety; the nod and the wink culture; the insider, who you know mentality; the old boys' club. And we all thought that those days were over.

"This is not acceptable.

"I ask you, can you stand over that? Have you full confidence in Minister Naughten and how he handled himself?"

Fianna Fail TD Dara Calleary accused the government of trying to play down the significance of the telephone call.

"This stinks," he said.

"This smacks of old style politics and cronyism. The type of politics Fine Gael always tried to say they are actually above.

"The PR lobbyist was after one thing and one thing only and that was a heads-up about what would happen with the merger application between INM and Celtic newspapers.

"This is not as simple as a phonecall between two mates. It is not as insignificant as Minister Naughten and the Taoiseach is trying to imply."

Fianna Fail TD Dara Calleary

Labour leader Brendan Howlin branded "worrying" the attempt to separate a personal conversation from the minister's statutory duty.

He said: "A minister performing a statutory duty is always a minister. The Cabinet conduct rules are clear. Ministers can't be private citizens when they choose to be in the middle of a statutory function.

"What is clear now, the minister should not have taken that call. He should not have provided his views on his likely course of action and he undoubtedly, if albeit unwittingly, compromised his statutory function."

Meanwhile, Mr Coveney conceded that the telephone call should not have taken place but insisted he did not believe the minister had acted inappropriately.

He said: "It is true to say that it would have been a lot better if this conversation hadn't taken place, I think the minister regrets that and obviously we all do.

"But that is a different thing than to say that the minister gave a steer here as to his intended course of action.

"What he said was that there was a likelihood that this might be referred to the BAI but he said definitively that he would be following the advice of his officials.

"Subsequently his actions showed that to be the case to the letter."