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Tuesday 5 December 2023 Dublin: 4°C
Sam Boal

'What planet are they living on?': Martin calls out 'farcical' broadband plan, says ESB agency should roll out network

FIanna Fáil says if in power it would set up an agency in the ESB to roll out broadband to rural Ireland.

FIANNA FÁIL LEADER Micheál Martin has said if his party were in power they would “go an alternative route” to the National Broadband Plan. 

Speaking at the launch of his party’s local election manifesto, Martin said he would set up an agency in the ESB to roll out broadband to rural Ireland. 

He cited that such a proposal is mentioned as a possible alternative in the voluminous departmental documents published yesterday.

“Our alternative would be to establish an agency to deliver broadband, get it done, and stop this faffing around the place, that’s what we would do,” he said. 

The government maintains such a move would breach State aid rules and procurement law.

However, Martin said the Department of Public Expenditure “know all about State aid rules more than any other government department, and the secretary general of that department proposed this as an alternative”.

The documents released yesterday suggest the ESB could have a role in an alternative roll out plan.

It would pass State aid rules, added the Fianna Fáil leader. 

He denied that such a move would delay the project by a further two years, stating that is a line the government is pushing in order to railroad their plan through.

A government source said the ESB option was looked at.

“We looked at all options. What was clear was that every other option would take longer, may cost more, would likely require a new State Aid application and may not provide the level of future-proofing required.

“What exactly is Fianna Fáil’s plan? TD Sean Fleming’s idea is to give a €1,000 grant to individuals to try broker a deal with commercial operators who have been clear that they aren’t going to invest in their area – That’s why we need a NBP in the first place.

“Micheál’s idea is to give it to the ESB, which the Attorney General has said it is illegal, and James Lawless is also talking about another plan? Do they have any plan?”

‘Spinning like hell’

“The government are spinning like hell,” according to Martin, who added that it is time the were “called out” for it. 

“What planet are they living on?” Martin asked, accusing the government of  “promising the sun, moon and stars again to rural Ireland” just two weeks out from an election.

“People need to get real,” said the Fianna Fáil leader.

He said the “big bang” proposal hasn’t worked and there has been a paralysis around the provision of rural broadband for several years now. 

Martin said the bulk of the risk is on the State, adding that a “far more pragmatic” and “cos-effective” approach is needed. 

Martin said that when the Secretary General of Public Expenditure Robert Watt states in his correspondence that the public spending code has been breached, that is a major cause for concern.

The lack of a meaningful response to the secretary general’s concerns from Minister Paschal Donohoe is also worrying, said the Cork TD, who dubbed the whole situation as “farcical”. 

He added that he was particularly taken aback to see the reference in the documentation released yesterday that said proceeding with the NBP would be an “unprecedented risk” to the Exchequer. “That’s heavy stuff,” he said. 

He said this is not just one voice, one secretary general calling a halt to the plan, but an entire department the minister is ignoring.

In his opinion, the decision was made to proceed due to Donohoe being put under “political pressure” from his party colleagues. 

National Development Plan

The National Development Plan’s credibility “has been torn to shreds”, said Martin, who highlighted the recent “ballooning” costs of the National Children’s Hospital, the National Broadband Plan and added there is now a question mark hanging over the Metro cost. 

Tánaiste Simon Coveney also faced strong questioning on the issue today during Leaders’ Questions. 

Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty accused the government of making a mess of the plan from start to finish.

Defending the government, Coveney said if they hadn’t made this decision, opposition parties would be attacking them.

“We made this decision as soon as we could stand over it,” he said, adding the pressing ahead will ensure there isn’t a “digital divide”.

“I hope we will get support from other parties in our efforts to do that,” he added. 

Coveney was also questioned about the investment the bidder is making to the project, with calls today for the government to reveal the breakdown between the State and operator’s costs. 

He said the government is not able to provide a figure as there’s still a negotiation to conclude. That figure will be published in time, he said. 

“This is a significant decision. But one that will be transformative for rural Ireland in terms of opportunity,” he concluded.

Green Party leader Eamon Ryan has also had his say on the broadband controversy today, stating that it was the Irish government who”undermined their own national broadband scheme in a way that will cost all of us dearly”. 

He claimed it was just an attempt “to sure up Fine Gael support in rural Ireland” ahead of the elections.

“What I’ve been saying consistently is that, at this stage, it’s not closed to use the ESB poles,” he said, stating that he had a private briefing yesterday with the government and it was confirmed ESB poles could be used.

“Fine Gael have got it badly wrong,” he added.

Additional reporting by Kathleen McNamee

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