The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment has ten minutes in which to make his statement.
Statement by Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment
Can we get copies of his statement before he proceeds?
I am sure they are on the way.
It would be preferable to have them before the Minister starts.
We will arrange to get it for Deputies.
In early September 2016, Independent News & Media, INM, announced that it had agreed a deal to purchase the portfolio of regional newspapers owned by the Celtic Media Group. The titles that were to be included in the deal were The Anglo-Celt, The Meath Chronicle, Forum, the Westmeath Examiner, the Westmeath Independent, The Connaught Telegraph, and the Offaly Independent. On 3 September 2016, after the public announcement by INM, the National Union of Journalists, NUJ, issued a statement calling on me, as Minister for communications, to investigate the implications of the proposed acquisition. According to Mr. Séamus Dooley of the NUJ:
In approving the acquisition the minister is required to consider the issues of media diversity and plurality. This is the first time these powers can be used by the minister, in addition to the powers of the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission.
In a further statement on 5 September 2016, Mr. Dooley called on me as Minister "to set up a panel of experts to investigate the acquisition and to ask the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland to carry out a fully statutory inquiry, as provided for in guidelines". He argued that in light of "INM's dominant position in the national newspaper sector and the dominant role of the chief shareholder in the independent broadcasting sector there are compelling reasons for an investigation into the full implications of this proposed acquisition".
On 26 October, Deputy Brian Stanley said in this House that "the media landscape [was] on the verge of losing more diversity owing to the possible purchase of Celtic Media Group by Independent News & Media which is controlled or owned by Mr. Denis O'Brien". He also raised media concentration concerns on foot of a European Parliament report, compiled by Lynn Boylan, MEP, which found that Ireland had one of the most concentrated media markets in any democracy. On 10 November, the NUJ said in a statement that I as Minister had power "to examine every aspect of the proposed acquisition" and urged me "to display political leadership and courage". It went on to say: "failure to do so would represent an act of political cowardice, something we have experienced many times when it comes to challenging media interests".
The Competition and Consumer Protection Act 2014, which sets out the powers of the Minister with regard to media mergers, states: "the undesirability of allowing any one undertaking to hold significant interests". The guidelines define "significant interests" as interests in excess of 20% within a sector, or across different sectors of the media business in the State.
Independent News and Media, INM, publishes the Irish Independent, the Sunday Independent, the Herald, The Sunday World and the Belfast Telegraph, and it has a 50% stake in the Irish Daily Star. Communicorp Group Limited, which is owned by the same shareholder, controls Newstalk, Today FM, 98FM, Spin 1038 and Spin South West, and this was approximately 20% of the entire market. The Minister, in making his initial assessment, must have regard to the relevant criteria provided for in the Act and the guidelines on media mergers, among other matters.
The Independent News and Media decision to purchase a further seven regional titles with a significant online presence was always likely to lead to a phase 2 assessment. I would have failed in my responsibilities under the law if I did not do so and I would have been criticised in the House for not doing it. I have not seen the contents of the affidavit referred to in The Irish Times, nor am I aware of its specific contents other than the manner in which it is dealt with in the article. As this is a matter that is before the courts I cannot comment on the affidavit itself. However, I confirm that I received a phone call from Mr. Eoghan Ó Neachtain, former press secretary to a number of Governments, on 10 or 11 November 2016 informing me that the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission had approved the Independent News and Media acquisition of the Celtic Media Group. This was in advance of the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission communicating the decision to me.
It was common knowledge that this was a very significant acquisition with a significant geographical impact. I expressed a purely personal view that the likely course of action would be a referral to a phase 2 assessment in accordance with the guidelines in light of the diversity and media plurality assessments required and in light of the scale of the proposed acquisition, its geographical concentration and the extent of ownership of regional media by Independent News and Media at that point. According to advice from the Office of the Attorney General, in the context of there being a decision by the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, the legislation about such referrals to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland is clear that referral is an option to me as Minister when there is a planned media merger. If this is so, there is nothing wrong or inappropriate with me as Minister saying to anyone or to the public that if the plan for the merger continued I would take advice on sending it to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, BAI. This is not inside information but simply a reflection of the legislation. I had no inside information to give.
It may have been preferable if the conversation had not taken place but I was by no means expressing a definitive view, nor could I do so at that time. Nor did I state that the view expressed was a confidential one as the article seems to assert. I clearly stated that I had made all previous decisions solely based on the advice provided to me by my officials and I reiterated that I would adhere to that approach in this case as well.
There seems to be a misunderstanding about the nature of the media merger process. It is not a secret process. Guidelines on the process are publicly available on my Department's website. The same guidelines were subject to a detailed public consultation prior to their finalisation. Prior to the phase one decision I answered six parliamentary questions in the Dáil on the acquisition and was, for example, exhorted by the National Union of Journalists and certain political parties to use all powers available to me to examine all aspects of the acquisition. The mergers process went through the full rigour required by the Act and the guidelines after it was received by me on 21 November 2016 and a recommendation was made by my officials on 4 January 2017 that the acquisition be referred to a phase 2 examination. This was approved by me on 10 January 2017. The vast majority of the documentation has been on my Department's website since last July but I would be very happy for any Member of Dáil Éireann to come to my Department and view the full file on this merger as I have acted to the letter of the law throughout this process.
We will now have a question and answer process, with one minute for a question and one minute for an answer. Six minutes has been allocated to each group.
On 6 December 2016, in response to a question as to what the Minister's intentions were in response to the proposed Celtic media takeover, he stated "I have not made my views known and I am not going to." He said it would be "not appropriate for me to provide any further comment while this case is under consideration". By his own admission, on 12 November the Minister communicated information to a public relations executive. The information was sufficient enough, we understand from what is reported in today's The Irish Times, to allow the company to communicate to one particular shareholder the understanding that the Minister would refer the decision to the BAI. Is that correct? If it is, how can the Minister not understand that this provided privileged information?
The Minister is trying to conflate two issues. He is trying to suggest on one hand that the process is not secret. We know the process is not secret and it is set down. There are three options. What is secret or at least just something known to the Minister is which option the Minister will pick. Will the Minister please explain to us with some clarity how on the one hand he refused to tell the House what his intention was but he was prepared to provide appropriate - as he saw it - information in a secret phone conversation with a public relations executive?
The application came to my Department on 21 November. The phone call I had with Mr. Ó Neachtain was in early November. The only new information I gave at that time was that I would take the advice of my officials in making whatever decision I would make. I said in the House on 6 December that I had not received the report from my officials, and I had not at that stage. I said I would consider the report from my officials. At all stages throughout this process I have taken the full advice that has been provided to me by my officials. I did not have any insider information relating to it. I had nothing to give. The guidelines and the processes are in the public domain and I applied those to the letter of the law.
Is the Minister disputing the reported contents of the email that now forms part of the affidavit? Is he disputing that Mr. Ó Neachtain understood from the Minister that he intended to refer the decision to the BAI? Is he disputing those facts?
I do not know what is in the email. I have not seen the email or the affidavit. I can without contradiction clearly state that I made it crystal clear on that occasion that I would be taking the advice of my officials and applying it to this decision, as I had done with all previous decisions to that point. The file will clearly show with each hurdle along this very complicated process that I took absolutely all the advice given to me. I made no alteration to any of that advice and I approved the recommendations presented to me.
It is not credible that a public relations executive hired by a company of the size and scale of INM would attempt to mislead his client. It seems very clear to me from what is reported today that the email communicated with some considerable level of a definite understanding that the Minister would ultimately send the decision to the BAI. As I understand it, the Minister is disputing this, which is where the crux seems to lie. Will the Minister clarify for us that he is not accepting the position that seems to be contained in that email?
I do not know what is in the email and I have not seen it. Let me be crystal clear that what I stated was my own personal view that based on what was already in the public domain and the guidelines and criteria there, it was likely to go to a phase 2 assessment. I also put in a caveat relating to it.
I made it crystal clear that I would be guided by the advice of my officials. At that stage I was not even aware that the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission had made its decision. The application did not come into our Department until later that month. When I came into the House on 6 December, there was an active file being assessed in the Department. It was received in my private office on 4 January 2018. On the advice of my officials, I made the decision subsequently to refer it on. The file will clearly show that I in no way interfered at any stage in this process. That file is open to any colleague here to inspect.
The Minister said an interesting thing - that he communicated his personal opinion to Mr. Ó Neachtain. How does he think that his personal opinion is relevant here? Does he not see himself as a Minister or is that sometimes his personal opinion does not coincide with his opinion as a Minister? I find that rather bizarre. It is almost like the Minister is attempting to throw out this notion that he did something in a personal capacity. His thoughts and ramblings were his views as the Minister who would ultimately have to take that decision. He is being accused of providing information to one party as to where he expected this to go or how he intended to deal with it. Yet, he came in here on 6 December and told us he had no intention of giving us any information.
There is an initial contradiction between the Minister's statement and his commentary. He did know the decision of the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission because Mr. Ó Neachtain informed him of it. It is not correct to say he had to wait until 21 November to know that. Time is limited. The Minister has confirmed for us that the call in question happened, that it happened with Mr. Ó Neachtain, that he spoke to him in the full knowledge that Mr. Ó Neachtain was acting on behalf of Independent News and Media and the Minister was aware from September that INM was looking to acquire, or to merge with, Celtic Media Group. All of that information was in the Minister's possession.
The Minister contends that was appropriate. I can tell him that it absolutely was not. The process of media mergers is not secret. It is statutory, regulatory and the Minister is responsible for it. Which official in the Minister's Department knew that he was speaking to Mr. Ó Neachtain? Is there a verbatim note on or log of that telephone conversation?
No, there is not because I did not, and still do not, see the significance of it. It was a conversation I had based on the information in the public domain. I had been provided with no detail. My Department had been provided with no detail of the acquisition. That did not come into the Department until later that month. I was not in possession of any information other than the information that was in the public domain. If the information in the public domain was matched with the guidelines and processes on the website, it was clear for anyone that this was likely to go to a phase two assessment.
The Minister is being disingenuous. He should not add to his woes. He needs to be clear and upfront when answering questions. He has, in my view, previously misled the Dáil. Even according to his own statement today, the Minister told Mr. Ó Neachtain what his course of action would be and that there would be a phase two examination. The Minister says this was a personal view. He is the Minister. He was speaking to somebody acting on behalf of the party that wished to carry out this takeover. That is not a personal view. The phone call happened. It happened in the way described in this affidavit. The Minister gave inside information to Mr. Ó Neachtain. He conceded as much in his opening statement. When he takes to his feet, the Minister needs to accept that was outside of the law, inappropriate and that that call should not have taken place.
I said in my opening statement that it would have been preferable if the conversation had not taken place and I reiterate that. It was by no means a definitive view and nor could I have done so at that time. I said it would likely that it would go to a phase two assessment, but I also made it crystal clear that I would be guided by the advice of my officials when the application came before us. The file had not come to our Department at that stage. It did not come to our offices until the end of November and it was dealt with appropriately at that stage. The fact is that-----
The Minister is waffling now.
-----the information, and the commentary I made, was based on the information already in the public domain.
It was not in the public domain. In fact, the Minister was very careful not only not to put it in the public domain but not to put it on the record of the Dáil. As the Minister knows, and this has been well rehearsed, on 6 December my colleague, Deputy Brian Stanley, asked him what his course of action was going to be. The Minister said that he had not made up his mind. However, the truth is that he had decided on his course of action. He was not prepared to share that information with the Dáil but he was perfectly prepared to share it with a person who he knew was acting on behalf of INM. If ever there were inappropriate actions, and I would go so far as to say a dereliction of duty by the Minister, there we have it. The call should not have happened and he should not have given what the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement regards as insider information. It was not a personal view. The Minister gave a response as Minister. Was this the first conversation he had with Mr. Ó Neachtain? Was it the last conversation he had with Mr. Ó Neachtain? Why did the Minister wilfully and deliberately mislead the Dáil on 6 December?
I did not wilfully or in any other way mislead the Dáil. On 26 October, Deputy Brian Stanley questioned me in the House on the Celtic Media Group acquisition. At that stage, it was with the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission. Deputy Stanley made the point that there was a question mark over losing more diversity owing-----
He is talking about the past.
-----to the possible purchase of-----
I have asked about 6 December.
I have the verbatim script here and I am happy to read it into the record of the House again.
The time is up now. I am sorry. The Minister can conclude.
The Minister needs to answer as to why he misled the Dáil.
How many conversations?
No, he does not because he has not been given time. I call Deputy Howlin.
There is no record of a phone call on 11 November in the lobbying register. This was a private call relaying private information that was not publicly available. In response, as others have said, to the parliamentary question from Deputy Murphy on 6 December, the Minister said that the case was under consideration. He told Mr. Eoin Ó Neachtain 25 days previously that he would be referring it to the BAI. This information was not on the public record. There was a clear statutory process in place. In his reply, the Minister said that it would not be appropriate for him to provide further comment while the case was under consideration. That is what he told the Dáil. Yet, he was happy to provide that information previously to a lobbyist. Why?
When I spoke to Mr. Ó Neachtain, I gave a view that it was likely to go to a phase two. I was not in any way definitive in regard to that. What I was definitive about, and the only new information Mr. Ó Neachtain received on foot of that conversation, was that I would be taking the advice of my officials and applying their recommendations to my decision. That was what I did both in terms of the phase one assessment and the recommendations made to me. I made absolutely no alteration whatsoever to those. I complied with the recommendations made to me by my officials and in regard to the other stages throughout this process. I made it crystal clear to Mr. Ó Neachtain at the time that that would be the view that I would take. I did not have any insider information to provide to Mr. Ó Neachtain at the time. The only information I had was based on what was already in the public domain.
The Minister had three options under the Act. Referral to the BAI was one of them.
Why did the Minister reveal his intended choice, before the process even got under way, to an interested party on a matter that obviously was price sensitive to the share price involved? Does the Minister consider that to be an appropriate or proper act of a Minister?
I did not give any definitive view to Mr. Ó Neachtain. I made it quite clear to him that it was likely to go to phase two. That was my own opinion but I also made it crystal clear to him that I would be going on the advice that was provided by my officials. As I have said, the only new information that I gave him was that I would be taking the advice of my officials, and that is what I did.
That is not true. That is not what the Minister said in his statement.
What advice did the Minister's officials give him subsequent to the Minister having this telephone call? Presumably, the Minister advised his officials that this telephone call had taken place. What did the Minister's officials tell him in respect of the appropriateness of this? Did the Minister conceal the fact that he had had this conversation from his own officials? Is that why incorrect information was given in a reply to a parliamentary question subsequently? Was it because the Minister's officials were not aware that this conversation had taken place and that the process - it is a statutory process and public, but elements are obviously confidential because they are price sensitive - had been undermined by the Minister's actions?
My officials were not aware of this conversation because this was a conversation that I had with Mr. Ó Neachtain based on the information that I had at that time, which was information that was in the public domain based on the criteria clearly laid out in respect of media diversity and media plurality. The file and application had not come in to our Department at that stage. When I did address the House on 6 December, that was an active file within my Department at that stage. I pointed out at the time that I had not received the report from the officials. I had said previously that I would be guided by the advice of my officials and that is what I did.
The Minister told no officials about this call. Therefore, I presume the call did not come through on an official line. Was the Minister contacted then on his private line at home or on his private mobile telephone by Mr. Ó Neachtain directly? Is that what the Minister is telling us? Is he saying nothing of that discussion ever was communicated to the officials dealing with this issue in his Department?
No, it was a mobile phone call. Yes, it was a mobile phone call that I received from Mr. Ó Neachtain. As I have said, I was not aware at the time until he pointed it out to me that the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission had made its decision. I expressed my personal view that it was likely to go to phase two. That was based on the comments of Deputy Stanley, the report of Lynn Boylan, MEP, the National Union of Journalists views in the public domain and the scale of this acquisition based on the guidelines laid out and published on my Department's website.
Was this the only communication the Minister had with representatives of the public relations agency or agents of Independent News & Media? Were there any other telephone calls?
The answer is "Yes" or "No", Minister.
I have had probably hundreds of journalists question me on this particular issue.
I did not ask about that.
Time is up, Minister, I am afraid.
I want to be comprehensive on the matter.
Let him answer.
Colleagues in the House had raised the issue with me on a regular basis.
What about the PR agency?
The staff of the Westmeath Independent had raised it with me following an on-the-record interview.
My question was about Independent News & Media or representatives of the company.
With regard to Independent News & Media, I did have a conversation with Leslie Buckley on 3 May 2017 at the data summit. That was the only other engagement that I had with staff of Independent News & Media.
Why was that information not in the Minister's statement?
Thank you, Minister. We have to move on. Solidarity has the next question.
The Minister's statement was lacking in detail.
Deputy Mick Barry is next.
They say that when a person ascends into the Cabinet it is time to start playing senior hurling, but I think when a Minister is being lobbied by big business-----
It is a matter of standing up to them.
-----it is less a case of senior hurling but sumo wrestling in the mud in reality, because this is very murky.
The Minister said that at the start of the telephone conversation the lobbyist gave him some information that he was not aware of, that is, the result from the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission. He gave the Minister something. The Minister responded by giving him something back, did he not? The Minister responded by giving him back a little information that he did not know. The Minister told him that it was likely that the Minister would be referring the matter, as he has explained. He was the first person to get that information. The National Union of Journalists was knocking on the door of the Minister looking for a meeting to find out what would happen next, but the first person to get the information was the big business lobbyist. There was a trade of information. In my opinion insider information was given to him. Is that not exactly how it happened?
The National Union of Journalists said of me on 10 November that I had the power to examine this acquisition. The union urged me to display political leadership and courage. The union went on to say that failure to do so would represent an act of political cowardice, something we have experienced many times when it has come to challenging media interests. The only new information that I gave Mr. Ó Neachtain in that conversation was that I would be taking the advice of my officials-----
That is not true. That is not what the Minister said in his statement.
-----and that is exactly what I did. I did not have insider information. I did not have confidential information, so I could not have disclosed it to him.
Can we have order please for Deputy Barry?
It is not correct that the only thing the Minister said to him that was new was that the Minister would be following the advice of his officials. The Minister told him that in his opinion this was going to end up being referred to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. That was new information for him. That information was quickly relayed to Denis O'Brien. It was information which had an effect on the share price. It was information which others outside, who are better placed to judge, believe was insider information.
What did the Minister talk about with Leslie Buckley in May 2017? Why was that not included in the Minister's statement? Why did it have to be dragged out of the Minister in the course of this debate? What was said in that conversation? Can the Minister tell the House?
I met with Leslie Buckley on 3 May 2017 at a data summit in the RDS organised by Independent News & Media. I was a speaker at it. Leslie Buckley greeted me and we exchanged small talk before I actually addressed the event. I left immediately after that event. At that stage the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland was still considering the matter in respect of its determination.
The reality is that at that stage if any Member here in the House was asked what his perspective was, based on all the information that had been in the public domain, he would have said that this was an application that would have to go to the BAI.
Everyone bar the Minister.
Everyone would have been of that view. In fact, had I not done that and had that not been the advice, I would have been grilled here in the House as to why I did not take that approach.
Did Leslie Buckley subsequently-----
Sorry, it is my question. On 6 December the Minister did not give that answer to the House. The Minister did not say that the dogs on the street and every Deputy in the House - presumably including the Minister - knew that this was where it was going to go. The Minister said that there was a whole menu of options. That is very different from the information the Minister provided to the lobbyist four weeks previous to that.
By the way, what about the conversation on 3 May 2017 at the data summit? There was small talk. There would be a little small talk. I am asking the Minister to indicate that all that happened in that conversation was small talk. Does the Minister believe that it is entirely credible that a conversation between the Minister and a senior executive of Independent News & Media at that stage in the process would simply be confined to small talk? Was that all it was?
The National Union of Journalists, NUJ, has just called for the 2012 finding that the 29.9% stake of Denis O'Brien in Independent News and Media, INM, is not a controlling interest to be reviewed. Does the Minister support that call? Does he believe there would have been a conflict of interest for Mr. Heneghan's company? He was lobbying for INM, was he not? Is he not on the compliance board of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland? Is there an issue there, in the Minister's opinion?
First, on the conversation I had with Leslie Buckley, I am trying to recall the detail of that, but I do not recall him raising with me at that stage the issues that are currently before the House If he had, I would have been quite consistent, as I was with every other individual who raised this issue with me, that it was part of an ongoing process and that I was not prepared to comment any further on it.
I want to answer the question on the BAI because it is a very valid question. Nigel Heneghan is the chairperson of Heneghan PR. Nigel was appointed to the BAI compliance committee on 17 February 2015 by the then Minister with responsibility for communications, Alex White. His term of appointment is for five years, ending on 16 February 2020. The BAI has confirmed that the compliance committee has no functions under the Competition and Consumer Protection Act 2014 and played no part in the consideration of the proposed acquisition of Celtic Media Group by Independent News and Media. The consideration of this proposal was undertaken by the authority following the referral by me in January 2017.
I call Deputy Broughan.
The Minister said that it may have been preferable if the conversation had not taken place. Is he saying then that he deeply regrets that the conversation took place, that it should not have taken place and that, in that case, he did not carry out his function as Minister appointed by this House?
The Minister was interrupted when he was responding to Deputy Howlin regarding other groups, obviously journalists, the trade union and other representatives who had contacted him in that period, particularly the mid-November period. Was he contacted by other stakeholders in the industry, other media groups, The Irish Times or whoever?
The reason I believe it would have been preferable had I not had that conversation is that I would not be in here answering these questions, but the reality is that I did not have any sensitive or confidential information to impart at that time, and I did not. As I said, the only new information that I gave was that I would be taking the advice of my officials, and that is what I did do.
To return to an earlier question, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland will be reviewing the ownership and control policy later this year and producing a report on it.
To answer Deputy Broughan's question, there was an array of journalists. In respect of every interview I did over this period, journalists from every single media outlet asked me questions. As I said, colleagues in the House asked me as well about it. I consistently told them the exact same answer, that this was an ongoing file and that I would consider it once the report was put in front of me.
Following an on-the-record interview with the Westmeath Independent, I was approached by a number of journalists and staff employed there who were anxious about their jobs in light of the proposed acquisition. While there was a discussion regarding the possibility of meeting the editor of the Westmeath Independent, I made a decision not to meet him. Regarding anyone else, I cannot recall anyone specifically whom I met, but everyone across the media sector would have raised this issue with me. I was consistent in my reply that it was an ongoing process and that I would consider it once the report was put in front of me.
Does Deputy Connolly have a question?
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Regarding the phone call from Eoghan Ó Neachtain, and the Minister referred to the fact that he was a former press secretary, the Minister did not include in what capacity he was acting on that day. We will probably know that from the media but the Minister left that out of his statement. What was the purpose of the call? Was it simply a friendly call to tell the Minister that this decision had been made, which he was not aware of as Minister? Will the Minister put the phone call in context for me, please? The Minister then said he was not sure which date that was. Clearly, it will be recorded on the phone which date it was. Is that not right? That would be a simple factual matter.
I am not definitive whether it was either the 10th or the 11th. I just cannot recall. I think Mr. Ó Neachtain, from media reports, seems to think it was the 11th and that may very well have been the case. That was the first that I had heard of the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, CCPC, announcement. I had not made that. It was a very brief conversation with Eoghan Ó Neachtain to say that this file would now be coming to me, that the CCPC had made its decision on it and I made it crystal clear that I would be going strictly on the advice that was provided to me by my officials, and that is exactly what I did.
Does any member of the Social Democrats or the Green Party have a question? I call Deputy Catherine Murphy.
I asked the Minister a priority question on the 6th of that month and he responded on the record and set out the process, but he had already spoken to a lobbyist on behalf of INM on the 11th, and that is what he has told us on the record. Did it not strike him as strange that this lobbyist was telling him what the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission was going to do? Given that the Minister has a quasi-judicial function in this particular matter, would he not have realised that he needed to say, "I cannot talk to you on this issue because this decision is part of a process", the process that the Minister outlined to me? Does the Minister accept that by talking to him and telling what he did tell him, namely, that it would probably go to the BAI, he misled the Dáil when he came in here on the 6th and outlined the process without telling us that?
No, I did not mislead the Dáil. What I told the Dáil was that when I received the report from my officials, I would make a decision based on that report, and that is what I told Mr. Ó Neachtain in that telephone conversation. That was the only new information that Mr. Ó Neachtain would have received about that. I did not have any insider information. I did not have any information provided to me at that stage. I have said that it would have been preferable had the conversation not taken place, but I again reiterate that by no means was I expressing a definitive view, nor could I at that time because there was nothing in front of me or with the Department at that stage.
Countless journalists, rightly, asked the Minister a question on this issue, as did Members of this House, and on 6 December he answered the Dáil and stated: "I have not made my views known and I am not going to. I have a decision to make". I do not know what the Minister said to any of the other journalists. I presume they will check what he said at that time. Surely, however, there was a difference in what he said to Mr. Ó Neachtain in that he indicated to him that he would likely make the decision, and that is the difference.
What is the Minister's personal relationship or connection to Eoghan Ó Neachtain? How did he get to know him or how long has he been working with him over the years? How could Eoghan Ó Neachtain ring the Minister and he take the call. I know Eoghan Ó Neachtain very well. Most people here would as well. Has the Minister had a particular relationship with him, was this the first time he may have been talking to him, would he have been talking to him regularly, or would they have worked together in the past?
I know Eoghan Ó Neachtain like the vast majority of the Members of this House. He worked here for a long number of years. He was a Government press secretary to, I think, three different taoisigh, both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael taoisigh, and that is how I would have known him. I would have had conversations with him not that regularly, mostly about rugby, believe it or not, because we both have an interest in Connacht Rugby, and both of us would have marched together a number of years ago to save Connacht Rugby at that stage. That is my affiliation with Eoghan Ó Neachtain. I think most colleagues here would have had some contact with him. I think quite a number of colleagues would have had communication with Heneghan PR over the last period of time-----
Funnily enough, no.
Strangely enough, no.
-----if one were to review the register. The only information, as I said, that I gave Eoghan Ó Neachtain was that I would be taking the advice of my officials, and I was quite categoric in relation to that.
That is not what the Minister's statement indicates.
Are there any further questions? I call Deputy Catherine Murphy.
Does the Minister accept it was an error of judgment to continue with that phone call? Does he accept that not notifying his officials that the phone call had taken place was an error of judgment, or did he notify his officials that the phone call had taken place and the nature of the phone call?
If the Minister did not notify his officials, was that not an error in judgment?
No, I did not inform my officials because, at the time, there was no active file within the Department. I had made it clear to Mr. Ó Neachtain that I would be following the advice of my officials. As I have already said, I would have preferred it had the conversation not taken place, but it did. However, I made it crystal clear at the time that I would be basing my decision on the advice that I would receive from my officials and that I would not deviate from it.
That is not what he is saying.
The view that I gave was based on the information that all of us had and was in the public domain-----
That is not what he says.
-----the guidelines and procedures that were in place and outlined on our website, and the scale of the issue.
That is not what he said.
That is consistent with the commentary from Deputy Stanley in the House-----
-----the National Union of Journalists and other commentators in this area outside the jurisdiction.
That is very disingenuous.
He says the Minister told him based on the advice of the latter's officials.
The Minister may now make his five-minute concluding statement.
I have absolutely nothing to hide in this regard. I encourage colleagues to look at the file that is available in my Department. Go through it-----
Publish the file.
No. There is confidential information in it-----
Then how can we look at it?
That is all right. We will ring the Minister.
-----and it would lose value if it was redacted. The file is there for people to inspect for themselves the exact process that was followed. There is a large volume of paper and the majority of the file has been on our Department's website since last July. Any colleague who wants to see the full file is welcome to come to the Department and go through it page by page. It is there, it is clear and it is transparent. I applied the legislation as laid out and based my decisions solely on the views of the officials. I accepted in full the recommendations that were received by me from the officials.
The Minister is missing the point. This is a publicly listed traded company. The share value is the issue.