TAOISEACH LEO VARADKAR has defended Fine Gael junior minister Pat Breen, who extended an invitation to dinner at one of the national broadband bidder’s home, to the former Communications Minister Denis Naughten.
In a statement last week, the Minister of State with responsibility for Trade, Employment, Business, EU Digital Single Market and Data Protection said:
I have gotten to know Mr McCourt on a personal basis, have visited his Co Clare home several times and met him on other occasions in a private capacity.
Last year, on the request of Mr McCourt, I asked Denis Naughten, then Minister for Communications, if he would like to come to a dinner in Mr McCourt’s house. Mr McCourt’s wife also attended the dinner. To my knowledge, the National Broadband Plan was not discussed at the dinner.
David McCourt is now the last remaining bidder to the NBP. Naughten was forced to resign last week after he admitted to meeting McCourt on a number of occasions, with no minutes taken or officials present at some of the meetings.
Breen has also stated that he has met with McCourt a number of times.
Pressure has been mounting on Breen since these revelations emerged, however a number of Fine Gael TDs came to his defence last week. Privately, a number of his colleagues have said he should resign.
The Taoiseach told TheJournal.ie that he had spoken to Breen and accepted his explanation.
At the time both Breen and Naughten attended the dinner in McCourt’s house in County Clare, there were a number of bidders still at play, said Varadkar, but he added that is “beside the point”.
“I spoke to Pat Breen about it and Pat Breen’s explanation, which I accepted, is that Mr McCourt asked him to pass on the invitation, which he did. Pat, at the time, asked Denis Naughten as to whether it was okay for that meeting to happen, and it did. Pat Breen was present. But ultimately the decision as to whether it was appropriate or not to accept the invitation was one for Denis Naughten,” said Varadkar, who added that Breen had no role to play in decision-making process for the NBP.
When asked did he think it was wise for a junior minister to extend an invitation to the communications minister from one of the bidders for the half a billion Euro broadband project, he said:
“I am sure in retrospect we can all see it was unwise, but a resigning matter it is not.”
It is understood that Varadkar has shored up support for Breen, while seeking that the Independent Alliance members in government to not push for his resignation.
Last week, Health Minister Simon Harris told TheJournal.ie, that the responsibility of individual ministers to decide “is it appropriate for me to meet this minister, is it appropriate for me to attend this event, is it appropriate for me to attend this dinner, and the reality is, Naughten had a decision-making role, Pat Breen didn’t”.
“Pat Breen asked a minister to meet a constituent, a neighbour, and Denis Naughten decided to do that,” he added.