“I always envied Ivan Yates for leaving politics when he was young” – Denis Naughten on his retirement
When John Bruton resigned as Fine Gael leader in February 2001, Denis Naughten told Ivan Yates, the popular former Minister of Agriculture, that he would back him for leadership. But Yates had a surprise for young Roscommon TD. “I will not be running in the next election,” he told Naughten days before going public with the decision. “Me and John had a deal, but that’s over now.”
It’s a memory Naughten recalls as he narrates Sunday independent why, after nearly 30 years in the Dáil, he decided to resign at the next general election. “I suppose I was always jealous that Ivan Yates left at a young age and I felt like I’d like to do that,” says the TD.
Naughten won’t turn 50 until this summer, but he’s spent more than a quarter of a century at Leinster House. First a Senator, he succeeded his father Liam, who tragically died in a car accident, in a by-election in early 1997 before being elected Fine Gael TD for Longford-Roscommon in June of that year.
He has returned five times – three times as Fine Gael TD – but has been an independent since July 2011 and in his last two general election campaigns.
His late father’s election commissioner, Tommy Hunt, had encouraged him to go into politics but also told him that if he was lucky enough to serve 20 years he should “go the hell out”. Hunt’s advice was not to get stale.
Naughten has certainly enjoyed, and at times had, a dramatic political career.
“The reality is that over the years I’ve seen people who have been here too long and gotten to a point where they were too old to do anything else and yet too young to retire, and I never wanted to end up in it,” he says.
In his resignation announced late Monday, he named private and professional reasons.
“I don’t want to go into all that,” he says personally.
“Of course, that takes its toll. It’s a difficult job. See, I got divorced two years ago next July, so yeah, it’s a tough job. But it’s something I enjoyed, that my family grew up with.”
His most significant and effective political achievement was undoubtedly his tenure as Minister of Communications between 2016 and 2018, when he initiated the National Broadband Plan to bring high-speed internet to every home in the country.
But he failed to go through with the plan when he was forced to resign in October 2018. His departure was fraught and followed significant controversy over meetings and private dinners with the sole remaining bidder for the multi-billion euro broadband deal.
When Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told him to reconsider his position, Naughten went to the Dáil and resigned after concluding that Varadkar had lost confidence in him.
“If I were a cynic, which I’m not,” he told TDs in his resignation statement, “I believe this result is more about opinion polls than telecom poles. It’s more about optics than fiber optics.”
Nearly five years later, Naughten concedes that repeatedly meeting with bidder David McCourt was “probably not” the right decision, but some level of anger over his resignation lingers.
“The only thing I asked for was that he be given the time to allow this investigation [into his meetings with McCourt] take place. I was not given that opportunity and I was frustrated and upset with Leo Varadkar and the media,” said the Roscommon-Galway TD.
He contrasts with Paschal Donohoe, the Secretary of State for Public Expenditure, who is currently under investigation for undeclared donations from businessman Michael Stone. “He was fortunate to have the opportunity for the investigation to happen, I didn’t have that luxury,” says Naughten.
He voted last December for Varadkar to return to the office of the Taoiseach because he believes the country needs stable government. He says relations with the Fine Gael leader are “okay”. But while Varadkar last week paid tribute to Naughten’s “enormous contribution” to politics, his former cabinet mate is less effusive. Ironically, Naughten seems to place more value on Enda Kenny – “a very good Taoiseach” – with whom he had a more tempestuous relationship.
Would Kenny have handled the broadband controversy differently?
“I think he would have, yes. I think Enda Kenny would have given me the opportunity to do the investigation,” says Naughten.
However, Kenny waived a promise made in the 2011 general election to keep the emergency room at Roscommon Hospital open.
This reversal led to Naughten’s resignation from the party and he never returned, although as he puts it: “I never left Fine Gael – Fine Gael left me.”
He feels the party left him to “hang dry” and the possibility of returning has never presented itself.
In the years that followed, as part of the so-called Reform Alliance, he had a brief dalliance with other former members of Fine Gael, who left the party in 2013 over abortion policies. However, he turned down an offer from Lucinda Creighton to take a stake in Renua, her ill-fated political enterprise.
He always believed that there was a better opportunity for independent TDs to work together, pool their resources and develop policy proposals, while at the same time being free from the sometimes rigid structures of a party.
He says he spoke to Shane Ross about creating such an entity, but then realized his future cabinet mate had gone into business on his own and set up the Independent Alliance.
“He had already figured it out before he got back to me,” says Naughten. “It was a question of trust. When you sit down and talk to someone and come up with a concept that I think is the right concept – and I’ve been looking at it for quite a while – and then Shane started a solo run on it.”
Did Ross steal his idea? “I wish him luck, I’ve stolen ideas over the years,” he laughs. But, he confirms, “yes, it was my concept and I had talked about it a long time ago and Shane did it himself.”
Contacted last week, Ross said he couldn’t remember meeting Naughten about forming an alliance. “If so, it made little impression on me,” added the former transport minister. “In any case, Denis made absolutely no impression. Many of us had the idea, but I was the only one who implemented it.”
Naughten says there have been other “real attempts” by political parties to join, but declines to name any. He doesn’t deny that Fianna Fáil was one of them, but says he felt “comfortable” as an independent and describes being in a party as having to “look over your shoulder at what you’re saying”.
As well as broadband, he is proud to have been part of a minority government independent of Fine Gael which introduced rural regeneration funding which he says is transforming towns like Castlerea, Boyle and Roscommon Town in his own constituency. “I think in the fullness of time [it] It will turn out to have had a major impact in bridging the gap between urban and rural Ireland,” he says.
He has no definitive career path in mind after politics, but plans to use his science degree to pursue a career in communicating scientific issues to politicians. Since last October he has chaired the interparliamentary trade union working group on science and technology – a kind of UN for parliamentarians.
“We’re trying to build a stronger relationship between scientists on the one hand and politicians and policy-makers on the other, so they can speak the same language,” he says.
Contrary to speculation, Naughten says he will stay out of the next general election campaign. “I’m not going to back any candidate,” he says.
https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/politics/i-always-envied-ivan-yates-for-leaving-politics-while-still-young-denis-naughten-on-why-hes-quitting-42348696.html “I always envied Ivan Yates for leaving politics when he was young” – Denis Naughten on his retirement