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Politics instead of vision

Denis Naughten, Political Man, is shrewd and scientific but visionless and floundering in his ministries

Denis Naughten (45) was born in Drum, County Roscommon, site of the Meehambee Dolmen, a portal tomb estimated to be 5,500 years old, and educated at St Aloysius College, Athlone which closed last year, University College Dublin and University College Cork, where he did a PhD in Food Microbiology (impressively focused on extracellular polysaccharide – complex carbohydrates – production in lactic acid bacteria). Just as DeV was said to be one of only three people in the world who understood Relativity, Naughtenites allege he is driven by the scientific approach. He is married to Mary Tiernan and they have four children. In the New Year of 2017, Naughten was nearly killed while cycling with his wife along a road between Roscommon town and Fuerty when struck by a car, sustaining back injuries.

Naughten’s father, Liam, was a Fine Gael TD (1982- 1987) and was Cathaoirleach of Seanad Eireann from 1995 to late 1996. Young Denis succeeded him following his tragic early death aged 52 in a car crash, at a by-election to Seanad Éireann in 1997 , making him the youngest ever senator.

He has the ever-important keen interest in all sports and has played Gaelic football with Clann na nGael GAA club and held both county and provincial athletic titles with Moore AC.

He was elected for the Longford–Roscommon constituency in the 1997 general election, aged just 24, and re-elected in 2002 when he and Simon Coveney were initially touted as the ace young guns who might replace the jaded Michael Noonan – before Big and wily Phil Hogan moved in to clear the path for Enda Kenny – with preferment promised. Within his first few weeks in the Dáil, he duly became Fine Gael Spokesperson on Youth Affairs, School Transport and Adult Education. This appears to be his level.

He was re-elected at the 2007 general election for the new constituency of Roscommon–South Leitrim. In June 2010, he unwisely supported Richard Bruton’s leadership challenge to Enda Kenny, after he had been promised the deputy leadership in a Bruton shadow cabinet. Following Kenny’s victory in a motion of confidence, Naughten was not re-appointed to the front bench and there was bad blood between him and Kenny, perhaps partly because Kenny and Liam Naughten had been close. In October 2010, he was appointed as party Deputy Spokesperson on Health. He was a member of the Governing Council of the Association of European Parliamentarians with Africa which aims to strengthen parliamentary democracy in Africa and keep Africa high on the political agenda in Europe.

He prevailed again at the 2011 general election. He voted against the Government in a motion to reverse cuts at Roscommon Hospital and lost the party whip. This parochial issue was the making of him; defined him.

His party and constituency colleague Frank Feighan voted with the Government on the controversial issue, despite intense pressure from angry locals.

The Government won the vote.

On 13 September 2013, he and six other expellees formed the Reform Alliance, described as a “loose alliance” rather than a political party or “loose cannons”.

The now largely forgotten grouping included TDs Lucinda Creighton, Billy Timmins, Terence Flanagan, and Peter Mathews as well as Senators Paul Bradford and Fidelma Healy-Eames who lost the whip over an abortion vote.

In the run-up to the 2016 General Election Naughten told the Connacht Tribune he would be willing to prop-up a minority Government after the general election – as long as it maintained and invested in Portiuncula Hospital Ballinasloe and Roscommon Hospital, and local health services.

He seems to draw his political tempo from his service on Roscommon County Council and the Western Health Board from January 1997 to October 2003.

More than one good idea needed in battle with
parochial lobbying. Pic: Sam Boal/

Any more profound political philosophy or vision of the common good has never crossed his lips. Naughten is really a rural populist, the Big Man, with a veneer of scientificism. His website is propelled by slogans like ‘Putting People First” and promises to “Get More Jobs to Cross The Shannon” and “Ensure That Every Child Leaving Primary School Can Read and Write”.

Naughten was re-elected in 2016 and the numbers catapulted him to a ministry.

The ambitious and crafty Naughten emerged as Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment in Enda Kenny’s Fine Gael/Independent minority government after two months of negotiation following the 2016 general election. He styles himself an Independent and has long dumped both Lucinda Creighton’s Reform Alliance and Shane Ross’s Independent Alliance.

A year into his second government, Enda Kenny was asked if he would accept Minister Naughten back into Fine Gael. He said that was a matter for Naughten, and that he was doing a good job as an Independent Minister. He said: “How am I getting on with Denis Naughten? Great”.

With Enda Kenny gone his rehabilitation is complete. So… time to see if the quiet man with the scientific bent is any good – playing, as they say, senior hurling.


He has little interest in the communications brief, as it is of little value to his constituency. He has been almost invisible as minister for data protection – for Google and Facebook. The underpowered Data Protection Commissioner serves under the aegis of his department from an unimpressive office in Portarlington. Ireland took Facebook’s word for it that very few of the 87 million people compromised by Cambridge Analytica were Irish.

He has, however, pushed for wider availability for high-speed broadband. Partly because viability has been undermined by Ireland’s unique fetish for one-off housing, Eir (successor to Eircom) pulled out of the bidding for the National Broadband Plan. Naughten was notably unable to get Eir, which owns much of the national phone infrastructure, to bid for the least attractive – farthest flung – next tranche of business, after it had delivered the most lucrative tranche to 300,000 houses in denser communities. Naughten may have been so reluctant to accept the logic of densifiying rural communities, anathema to his electorate, that he was blinded to its economic downsides.

An F
Pic: Leon Farrell/


The Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement (ODCE) recently sought to have inspectors appointed to investigate corporate governance issues at INM. Details of a conversation between Naughten and Eoghan Ó Neachtain, director of public affairs at Heneghan PR, a former Fianna Fáil (and briefly Fine Gael) government press spokesperson and crucially, according to Naughten, a fellow supporter of Connacht rugby team, were relayed to INM’s largest shareholder Denis O’Brien in November 2016.

Ó Neachtain, who was acting for INM, told the Minister that the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission had approved the company’s acquisition of Celtic Media.

Naughten expressed what he told the Dáil was “a purely personal view that the likely course of action would be a referral [by him] to a Phase Two assessment in accordance with the guidelines in light of the diversity and media plurality assessments required”.

The conversation may have conveyed inside infomationand potentially a breach of stock market rules. During an hour-long Dáil session, Mr Naughten defended his position, saying it would have been “preferable if the conversation had not taken place”. But he repeatedly argued he didn’t express a “definitive view”.

The Minister said he had no inside information to offer the PR executive and – ludicrously for a Minister – that he was offering a purely personal opinion.

Catherine Murphy TD told the Dáil:

“On the 6th of December 2016, he stood in this chamber and told me in response to a priority question, he had only commenced the phase one assessment on the 24th of November 2016, his officials had not yet made any decision and that he had 30 days to make a decision on three options – one of which was a potential referral to the BAI [Broadcasting Authority of Ireland].

He said, and I’m quoting, that he ‘hadn’t received a report from his officials yet’ … So here was a PR firm employed by INM and with close ties to all the close protagonists in INM making a direct contact with a minister and being made privy to a decision when I, as a parliamentarian, weeks later, was told the decision had not been made yet.

“The repercussions for this, I believe, are stunning – not least in relation to the implications it has for the potential market manipulation and inside dealing but also for the questions it raises in regards to corporate governance and INM and the axis of power between major shareholders of INM and his department”.

The Minister was lucky to avoid a motion of no con dence, in part because few in Ireland understand or care about conflicts of interest or insiderism and in part because the main opposition parties were keen to avoid an election before the referendum on the Eighth Amendment had taken place.

After the debacle, Naughten said he would no longer be taking calls from lobbyists but sure how else would he function: the Sunday Times reported in mid-May that he was already taking calls again from Ó Neachtain, who must be a real pal – this time over broadband issues, on behalf of Enet-SSE, a joint venture bringing fibre broadband to 115,000 homes in the west and northwest.


The environment is probably the meat of Naughten’s ministerial brief and time will judge whether this reserved man with a fixer ideology and consensual temperament was a good choice, particularly to deal with the overwhelming issue of climate change.

On the face of it, Ireland appears to be acting on climate change. Last year it appointed Naughten its first ever “climate action minister”, and outlawed onshore fracking. The telegenic new Taoiseach Leo Varadkar dedicated much of the first day of his inaugural Cabinet retreat to discussing climate change.

Varadkar introduced Ireland’s first national mitigation plan (NMP) in more than a decade, and said that addressing climate change would “require fundamental societal transformation and, more immediately, allocation of resources and sustained policy change”. Naughten’s discomfort in media interviews was obvious. Ireland was, he stressed, “playing catch-up” and shouldn’t really be judged too harshly.

Naughten glossed over the lacunae and lack of ambition in the NMP by declaring it a “living document’, perhaps an Irish Ministers term for acknowledgement that it will need to be changed.

Ireland will face substantial fines for missing European carbon reduction targets by 2020 but, according to Naughten the penalties will not be as high as the 1600 million the European Commission is predicting. According to his Department, “Based on current trajectories it will not be possible for Ireland to meet its 2020 target”, which was attributed to “constrained investment capacity” in the renewable energy sector over the past decade as a result of the “economic crisis, and the challenging nature of the target itself”.

Naughten always says Ireland faces uniquely challenging circumstances. But, as one of the richest countries in the world, this is becoming ever less credible.

The essence of Naughtenism is his determination that the government should not be prescriptive on how Ireland meets its targets on the defining issue of our time. Conveniently this avoids taking tough decisions now.

Last year Naughten quietly signed off on the Druid/Drombeg exploration eld off Ireland’s west coast which is eyeing an estimated five billion (5,000,000,000) barrels of offshore oil.

The Department issued no press statement about the initiative and it didn’t even merit a mention on its website.

The news instead leaked out via an industry website, Proactive Investors, which revealed that Providence Resources PLC, associated with the [Tony] O’Reilly family, had confirmed that drilling operations had begun for the exploration well near Porcupine bank off the Irish coast.

The website explained it is “expected to be a high impact exploration programme, if the well successfully confirms the prospects seen in pre-drill analysis”.

Naughten’s environmental legacy, assuming he even seeks one, so far depends on the government’s newly published National Adaptation Framework (NAF) published last year. Certainly it makes a fair st of asserting the science of climate change and the scale of the challenges facing Ireland in the coming decades.

In his introductory message to the NAF, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar refers to the 2017 National Mitigation Plan (NMP) and states that: “no matter how successful these mitigation efforts prove to be, it is very likely that Ireland will still face substantial impacts of climate change due to past emissions”. John Gibbons, An Taisce’s Climate Disruption Spokesperson stated “Regrettably, what the NMP in fact represented was a target-free fudge that is little more than a capitulation to special interest pressure groups. However well intended and however well funded, measures to adapt to climate change will certainly be futile unless the dangerous levels of emissions that are fuelling climate change are also tackled earnestly and urgently”.

Ireland produces, per capita, the third highest emissions in the European Union. We are set to miss our binding 2020 emissions reductions targets by a very wide margin, exposing the Irish taxpayer to massive nancial penalties in the coming decade. The latest EPA projections released at the end of May show, at best, Ireland will only achieve a 1 per cent reduction by 2020 compared to the target of 20 per cent reduction (on 2005 levels) for agriculture; transport, residential buildings, commercial activity, “non-energy intensive industry” and waste including incineration. And will struggle to meet 2030 targets on key sectors. This failure to meet our commitments undermines EU solidarity in taking actions commensurate with the extraordinary threats posed by climate change and reduces our own ability to fund both mitigation and adaptation.

The 2018 Climate Change Performance Index recently ranked Ireland as the worst performing country in Europe in terms of taking concrete action to tackle climate change. The report, issued by Germanwatch and the New Climate Institute, ranks Ireland in 49th place – a drop of 28 places from 2016 – out of 56 countries reviewed in the Index.

Varadkar was right last year when he told the European Parliament this week that he is “not proud” of Ireland’s role as a “climate laggard”, a position that does significant damage to our international reputation.

More insidiously, however, Ireland has snakily skewed discussions on climate at EU Council level to reduce targets and stringency. In early May it introduced “two new exibilities to allow for a fair and cost-efficient achievement of the targets”. This cannot but betray an underlying Irish political antipathy to applying the strictures of the anti-climate-change agenda. At best Naughten might be said to be in the hands of conservative, business-fetishising civil servants, even in his own department. At worst his background, temperament and lack of curiosity make embracing Big Ideas like a radical approach to climate anathema, particular in the face of vested interest, especially agriculture, but also transportation, construction and business generally which are conterminous with his politics.

Ó Neachtain: batted for Ireland
and Fine Gael
Pic: Mark Stedman/

John Gibbons, An Taisce’s Climate Spokesperson stated “An Taisce calls for an urgent reworking of the NMP so that it can begin to address the woeful performance of our transport and agriculture sectors in particular, and ensure that these sectors directly bear the brunt of the any related financial penalties in the coming years: it is right and proper that the ‘polluter must pay’”.

Naughten is committed to “ending all coal burning” at Ireland’s biggest polluter, the Moneypoint power station, by 2025. However, he needs urgently to commit to also put an end to the three inefficient, peatred power plants operated by Bord Na Móna and the ESB. Some chance.

In any event a key question is: what does Ireland intend to replace the large coal-burning Moneypoint facility with? Both the carbon and human health bene ts of closing it will be quickly lost if, for instance, Moneypoint is converted to biomass, leading to the import of millions of tons of newly felled trees from forests in the south eastern US states (as the giant Drax facility in the UK does today).


Ireland is the EU’s worst per capita producer of plastic waste, at 61kg annually, 50% above the EU average. in 2016 95% of all Irish plastic waste was shipped for dubious ‘recycling’ in China which has now ceased But Naughten claims to be up for this one: Ireland, he claims, fully embraces the new EU plastics strategy. Indeed, Ireland, he told the Irish Times, strives to go beyond its recommendations, Well, let’s see if history is a guide to the future.

A senior Green Party politician says he has done “nothing on climate change, nothing on waste, nothing on legislation for district heating, and his Department for ‘Climate Action’ is still offering Petroleum Scholarships”.

It’s not that Naughten would ever consider himself anti-environmental: few in Ireland would ever be so committed. It’s more that he’s pro-short-term, pro-enterprise, anti-regulation. He’s perfectly happy opposing uncontroversial delinquencies like littering. He’s even described it as “economic sabotage”. According to the Irish Times, “Resources to stop it will again be ramped up this year. Local authorities will soon be asked for programmes to build on progress”. The Minister is said to be buoyed by high-profile convictions last year for illegal dumping although he notes ominously that policing it is resource intensive. The Irish Times notes: “Multi-agency teams are now involved, jurisdiction issues have been clarified and 25 regional officers act across county boundaries. Best use of technology including drones is a priority. The Minister supports a review of penalties and weaknesses in legislation”. Golly.

Given that the plastics crisis is now a world problem, Mr Naughten says the EU must target more difficult non-recyclable plastics – soft wrapping, film etc and single-use items such as coffee cups and cutlery.

Public procurement rules across the EU should reward environmentally-friendly suppliers and punish those who are not, he argues. But you wonder if his heart can really be in it.


Naughten will have taken the INM pasting to heart and, never arrogant, he will be humbler. He remains popular in the Dáil, and Fine Gael would like him back.

However, there seems no reason for Naughten, whose seat is safe, to rejoin Fine Gael when he would be a first choice for a Fianna Fáil government in the event of a close general election, which many feel may be imminent. Naughten, Political Man, is a political fixture.

Michael Smith