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Varadkar: Review shows broadband process 'is not tainted'

Latest: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has declared that a review of the national broadband process and of meetings over the project shows that the “process is not tainted”, writes Juno McEnroe.

Speaking in the Dáil this afternoon, Mr Varadkar faced questions about a report into meetings between former communications minister Denis Naughten and a consortium bidding for the plan.

The Smyth review concluded the broadband plan process was “not influenced” by Mr Naughten or businessman David McCourt, who is leading the consortium bidding for the task to supply broadband to half a million people.

The involvement of Mr McCourt and contact with Mr Naughten over the plan was "without precedent", claimed Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin during Leaders Questions.

It included five telephone calls and nine dinners, the majority of which were about the broadband plan, the Dáil heard.

But Mr Varadkar insisted the review's conclusions showed that the process was “not tainted”.

Furthermore, the final bid had been submitted by the McCourt-led consortium on September 18 last and this was being assessed by two independent consultants groups, it was added.

Recommendations from these two assessments will be made to government on whether to go ahead with the bid.

But Mr Martin wants answers and an explanation on how the make up of the consortium has “hey presto” changed in one of the final stages of the bidding process.

Moreover, explanations over different meetings including over the level of subsidy by the state for plan “didn't stack up”, said the Opposition leader.

He also sought clarity over the breaching of canvassing rules during the meetings as well as what might be the final cost of the project.

Parties are due to meet later today to discuss whether to proceed with a special Dáil debate on the Smyth review into the project, with TDs pushing for one to be held this Friday.

Report finds broadband tender was not influenced by Minister and David McCourt

The Government-commissioned report into the broadband lobbying fiasco has concluded that the project has not been damaged by Denis Naughten’s serial meetings with the only bidder in the process.

The report by independent expert Peter Smyth was commissioned by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in October in response to concerns over the transparency of the bidding process which threatened to collapse the Government.

The concerns specifically involved repeated meetings by then communications minister Mr Naughten and Granahan McCourt chairman David McCourt, whose firm is key to the only bidder still seeking the multi-billion euro project.

The review has now been published by Communications Minister Richard Bruton.

While Mr Naughten initially claimed that only one meeting took place, over a number of weeks it emerged that he met had Mr McCourt on nine different occasions while the tendering process was underway.

Although Mr Naughten rejected any criticism of the meetings, he resigned on October 11 after being told by Mr Varadkar his position was no longer tenable.

Today, Mr Smyth's report said: "The fact that the former minister met Mr McCourt or representatives of the other bidders outside the process is not in and of itself a basis for the finding that the procurement process has been tainted.

"I am satisfied that neither the former Minister nor Mr McCourt had the opportunity to influence the conduct of the tender process in favour of Granahan McCourt or otherwise.

"I also believe that the decision of the former minister to resign, thereby removing himself from the process insulates the process from any apparent bias created by his engagements with Mr McCourt."

The review goes on to say that Mr Smyth had to rely on statements from the then Minister and Mr McCourt about their meetings since there were no notes or formal minutes recorded.

Minister Bruton said the Government has accepted the findings of the review, which was considered by Cabinet earlier today.

He said his department is continuing to evaluate the final tender, which will result in a recommendation to Government.

The minister added: “The Government is committed to providing high speed to rural Ireland... The Government is absolutely committed to reaching the 540,000 premises which will not be reached by commercial operators."

Meanwhile, opposition parties have continued criticising the way the plan has been handled.

Sinn Féin said the whole process is flawed, and there needs to be a deeper examination into why all the major telecoms companies have pulled out of the running.

The Labour Party claims it would be reckless to go ahead with this tendering process, as the cost of it spirals to what could be as much as €3bn.

People Before Profit TD Bríd Smith has called for the project to be delivered by an existing state company such as the ESB.

- Digital Desk