Sunday 23 July 2017

How the action played out on hallowed turf

AVIVA Stadium -- in its former guise as Lansdowne Road -- has been home to many close-fought battles between long-standing rivals over the years.

Yesterday, the new stadium played host to another ancient rivalry between the two biggest shareholders of Independent News & Media (INM), while another shareholder in the shape of Dermot Desmond also engaged in a spot of shadow boxing.

Mr Desmond, usually centre stage, was merely the warm-up act in yesterday's drama. He resorted to one of his favourite and most effective tactics; getting a hired hand to stand up and read a statement to shareholders. It is something that he has done several times in the past when he has made an investment in a company, and it never fails to grab his fellow shareholders' attention. (His most recent outing was a testy Bank of Ireland AGM at the beginning of the banking crisis.)

But while Mr John Bateson did a reasonable job, he lacked the gravitas that Mr Desmond would have brought to the occasion and the contribution was something of a damp squib.

Why Mr Desmond always hires others to speak is a mystery, but he is not unique. Neither of the other shareholders were in the Aviva Stadium in person yesterday, although one can be sure that they were there in spirit.

The first tackle was reserved for the election of the directors. The latest round in this contest began when the three O'Brien nominees, Leslie Buckley, Lucy Gaffney and Paul Connolly, indicated recently that that they would be voting against the adoption of the company accounts in protest at fellow board member Bengt Braun, who they believe is not independent by virtue of his connection with Gavin O'Reilly through WAN-IFra -- a global newspaper trade body.

However, shareholders overwhelmingly rejected this suggestion and voted in favour of retaining the former Swedish naval commander on the board.

Shareholders then proceeded to vote against the re-appointment of Leslie Buckley -- Denis O'Brien's right-hand man in many of his adventures.

While the reasons for this decision can only be known by those who cast their ballots, the independent organisations that advise institutional investors on how to vote have long believed that Mr O'Brien, who holds a 22pc stake in INM, is over-represented on the board and pointed to Mr Buckley's relative lack of newspaper experience in media as a reason to depose Mr Buckley rather than his two colleagues.

Ironically, the action moved up a notch once the AGM finished, with both sides issuing numerous press statements setting out their stall and backing their respective teammates.

An objective referee, if such a person exists in this particular case, would almost certainly have used that most over-stated of all sporting parlance and said it was a game of two-halves yesterday.

But the lesson of the Aviva Stadium is that almost all victories are followed by defeats and vice versa. Like Leinster and Munster, the spoils of victory rapidly move from one to the other and back again.

Irish Independent

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