From top: Minister for Communications Denis Naughten and Fianna Fáil TD Timmy Dooley and Sinn Féin TD Brian Stanley
In the Dáil.
Minister for Communications Denis Naughten was asked again about his contact with lobbyist for Independent News and Media Eoghan O’Neachtain in November 2016, in relation to INM’s proposed takeover of the regional newspaper group Celtic Media.
At the time, the minister told Mr O’Neachtain that he planned to refer the proposed takeover to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland.
This discussion was then relayed to Denis O’Brien in an email of November 12, 2016.
This was two months before the minister’s plans were made public.
In addition, on December 6, 2016, Minister Naughten told Social Democrats TD Catherine Murphy and Sinn Féin TD Brian Stanley he had not yet decided if he was going to refer the proposed takeover to the BAI.
Minister Naughten never took a note of his mobile phone call with Mr Ó Neachtáin, he didn’t tell his officials and Mr Ó Neachtáin didn’t register the approach with the Lobbying Register.
Further to this…
In the Dáil this morning:
Brian Stanley: “Are there two types of meetings with your department? And two types of contacts? Both official and unofficial? And how many of these do occur?”
Denis Naughten: “We do comply with all of the standards and the legislation, as set out, as I’ve said. I’ve discussed this with my secretary general and he is reviewing the situation to consider if there are further changes. I, for one, won’t be taking any phone calls from lobbyists in the future, I can tell you that for nothing. But the reality is that we do comply with it, and as you know, if you look at the register I think, there are, I think 951 occasions in which my own name is mentioned in relation to various interest groups that have lobbied me since I was appointed minister. I think that’s an average of about 50 a month, covering a wide range – right from the environmental sector, right through to communications, energy, broadcasting media, right across the spectrum. So it is a very busy department, a very complex department – many aspects that are very technical and, as I said, I have discussed this with my secretary general.”
Timmy Dooley: “Look, if we could try and bring this thing to a conclusion, rather than having it, dragging it on, it doesn’t suit any of us. But I think we all have a responsibility to this House to try and get it tidied up. So, for me, there’s a couple of straight questions that you need to answer.
“And if you first accept that you provided confidential information, in other words, an insight into what you were, what you were ultimate intentions might be or your future intentions, and let’s not dance around the head of a pin and that, three weeks later, you came in here and misled the Dáil, albeit inadvertently, I would suspect, but nonetheless, you mislead the Dáil. There’s potential for all of us to do it. It’s just a matter of addressing it and getting beyond it. And that your actions amounted to wrongdoing.
“I don’t bear you any ill will whatsoever. I have considerable sympathy for you, to be honest in this instance. The way you wandered into such a firestorm, but nonetheless minister, you’re responsible to the House. So there’s three things I think you need to do.
“You need to accept that there was confidential information, because you did give insight into where you were, where you might ultimately go, you can put the caveat on it. The issue of misleading the Dáil and accepting it was wrongdoing.
“It doesn’t require you to resign, minister. Nobody has been really demanding that. But it requires you to be answerable to the House. And then I think, you know, this issue gets off your desk and gets off everybody’s desks.”
Naughten: “No, I did not give confidential information and I’m quite categoric in relation to that. The conversation that I had, and I sincerely regret that conversation, and I acknowledge that it was a political mistake to have that conversation and I’ve learned form my experience and I apologise for that. And I sincerely apologise for that.
“But I did not give confidential information, because I did not have any information available to me at that stage. The information that I had was the information that everyone else in this House had or was available on Google and yes, I do regret giving my opinion in relation to it at that point and the reality was that three weeks later, when I was here in the House, I had an active file in front of me at that stage, and it was a very different situation at that point.
“And I’ve been at pains to try and point out that. And I do sincerely regret it.”
Stanley: “Minister, just in relation to your reply. The problem arises that I asked you in October of 2016 about this and I asked you again on the 6th [of December] in a Priority Question here, in this seat, and you sitting over there in relation to what was your intentions regarding that merger and what you intended to do and you told me, and the transcript is there from that debate in the Dáil between you and I, that you had absolutely no idea, I remember you, I think you shook your head, as to what you were going to do with it. And you can say that in relation to, that you didn’t have the file in front of you at that point, that you hadn’t entered the process, and I know how that works, I’ve looked at all of that in detail.
“And I was following that very carefully at that time because we had huge concerns about that and I was raising it with you for months before that. But the problem, that’s where the problem arises.
“I accept the fact that you have apologised, what we wish to do now is to make sure that we tighten up all of this area…Would you agree that unofficial contacts with lobbyists, for ministers, has to stop?”
Naughten: “Look. Deputy Stanley, in my initial reply to you, to your supplementary, I said, look, I won’t be taking calls for lobbyists. I’ve said to you that I have discussed it with my secretary general and he will be reviewing the situation to see if there are other changes that, in procedures. But procedures are set out very clearly in relation to this and as I say, look, I have apologised for it. I do sincerely regret it. And look, I just want to get on, focus on the job and work that’s in front of me, the very demanding job, it’s a very demanding department and I know that all of you here want to do the same thing. And look, there’s nothing more that I can say in relation to this.”
Dooley: “I want to let you on with your job, I want to get on with mine. But I’m still at a loss as to understand, why you regret taking the call? Why you’ve apologised for taking the call? Why you’ve asserted that you’ll never take a call again – if you did nothing wrong in the first instance?”
“The facts remain, minister, that you fail to understand, by providing an insight into your thinking, a personal opinion, whatever it might be, that was confidential information. It’s the confidence of your own personal information that’s at play here – not access to some information in relation to your officials.
“Because you had a hunch as to where this thing was going. And you gave that information to the lobbyist and he passed it on. Which is now the result, or is now forming part of evidence which the Director of Corporate Enforcement is using as part of his campaign to appoint investigators [into INM]. So it was confidential information, minister. That’s what you need to accept. That’s what you’ve identified as being regrettable for taking the call, that’s what you’ve apologised for. You need to start at the beginning and just accept that you provided confidential information, that it was wrong, it was on a relatively low scale and it can be addressed within this House.
“Will you just please, just bring this to a conclusion, minister?”
Naughten: “One, I did not give any confidential information. Two, I made it crystal clear that I would be guided by whatever advice that I got from my officials and the file shows clearly that’s exactly what I did. And the reason that I regret and apologise is this is the fourth day in a row, in this House, that we’ve been discussing this issue here regarding a 30-second conversation that I had giving an opinion that I sincerely regret giving and that’s why I’m apologising to this House and to the public out there. That his House has been preoccupied about this for four days in a row.”
Previously: ‘He Didn’t Do Any Favours For Denis O’Brien’