Tuesday 23 May 2017

So who's afraid of Denis O'Brien? Enda Kenny is

The Moriarty Tribunal ran for 14 years and cost the taxpayer €200m. Seven months on from its report, nothing has changed, writes Elaine Byrne

DENIS O'BRIEN is not corrupt. The Moriarty Tribunal report did not make any finding of corruption in relation to the decision by Michael Lowry, as minister for transport, energy and communications, to award the second mobile phone licence to O'Brien's Esat Digifone in 1996.

Denis O'Brien can be described as a patriot. In an 18-month period between March 1995 and June 1996, O'Brien supported Irish democracy by attending 14 Fine Gael fundraising events, donating over IR£20,000 to the party which was then in government. On behalf of Esat, Telenor, the Norwegian telecommunication company, donated $50,000 to Fine Gael in 1996. The Taoiseach, John Bruton, later rejected this.

The Telenor donation happened to occur just two months after O'Brien's company, Esat, won the single largest procurement award in the history of the State. The other donations to Fine Gael happened to occur, according to the tribunal, "during the currency of the GSM competition and subsequent licensing negotiations".

The tribunal noted that as part of his "strategy of promoting himself and his companies with members of Fine Gael", O'Brien appointed the Fine Gael TD and former minister for communications, Jim Mitchell, as his political consultant.

It was Mitchell who organised O'Brien's first meeting with Lowry in January 1995, just 21 days after Lowry was appointed as minister. Mitchell happened to have more or less the same ministerial portfolio in the 1980s.

Within four years of this first encounter, O'Brien had, the tribunal tells us, donated almost IR£1m in "clandestine circumstances" to Lowry through loan support and payments. These came in three separate instalments; the first happened to occur less than seven weeks after the mobile phone licence had been granted. It included IR£147,000, Stg£300,000 and a "benefit equivalent to a payment", in the form of loan support, of Stg£420,000.

My apologies for returning to the tribunal. I know we all know this. But it's so easy to forget. It has been a long, long seven months since the tribunal reported.

So, better twice remembered than once forgotten, as a wise man once said.

These payments, the tribunal found, "were demonstrably referable to the acts and conduct of Mr Lowry in regard to the GSM process, that inured to the benefit of Mr O'Brien's winning consortium".

Lowry's "insidious and pervasive influence" was such that he had "irregular interactions with interested parties at its most sensitive stage. . . and thereby not only influenced, but delivered, the result" whereby Esat won the evaluation process.

What was the new Fine Gael-Labour government's response in the immediate aftermath of the tribunal report?

"This report will not be allowed to gather dust," the Taoiseach told the nation last March. Riding on the wave of a "democratic revolution", as he called it at the time, Enda Kenny was absolutely unequivocal in the Dail on his views of the tribunal report.

He vowed to "sever the links between politics and business once and for all and, in so doing, achieve three fundamental goals: stop the further pollution of our society; re-establish a moral code and order regarding public life; and, through that, restore public confidence in politics and government".

He said those words just three weeks after he was nominated Taoiseach. He was very new in the job. Have the views of the coalition Government changed since those heady days?

Denis O'Brien was a guest of the Government at the Global Ireland Forum last weekend. Just as well he was, considering that he flew Bill Clinton to the forum on his private jet. He was lucky enough to have an unobstructed view of the President's speech, seated as he was in the row directly behind the Government.

The speech, by the way, was in Dublin Castle, the same venue where the Moriarty Tribunal met for 14 years. Do you remember how outraged we all were at the estimated cost of the tribunal? At least €200m to the taxpayer?

Outrageous. Amazing how fast the last seven months flew by.

Barry Maloney, a former chief executive at Esat, proved himself to be very inconvenient last weekend.

In a letter to the Taoiseach, Maloney complained of "double standards" and refused to attend the forum because of O'Brien presence. "With respect, I have to ask you Taoiseach" Maloney wrote, "What does it say about this Government's attitude to the unacceptable business practices exposed in that report?"

That's a really good question, Barry.

When Harry McGee of the Irish Times put that very question to a senior Government source, the reply was absolutely unequivocal. The Government "expressed confidence in Mr O'Brien, who was involved in many important Irish businesses and charities and had an important contribution to make to the forum".

The Minister for Arts, Heritage and Gaeltacht Affairs was equally unequivocal. When asked about Maloney's letter, Jimmy Deenihan was resolute.

"Denis O'Brien. . . that's his own business, he's contesting a lot of findings of the tribunal . . . it's not for us to judge him."

These recent statements are somewhat at odds with the Taoiseach's unequivocal Dail response all the way back in March.

"To recreate political virtue, rebuild public trust and restore our reputation, it is no longer sufficient to do what is correct," Kenny avowed. "We must do what is right."

These are meaningless words by a man in power who is afraid of offending the powerful. There have never been any significant consequences from the tribunals because it is easier to avoid than to acknowledge; to ignore than to confront. So we convince ourselves with a cancerous mantra, we must be pragmatic, we must not judge.

To forget. That is probably why only 38 copies of the Moriarty Tribunal have to date been sold.

Help me here because I'm at a complete and utter loss. I don't understand the logic of how a Government can have two unequivocal but utterly contradictory views on the same topic.

Does the Government fully accept the Moriarty Tribunal report? If the answer is yes, as the Taoiseach so robustly declared, how on earth can the Government now express confidence in Denis O'Brien?

What has changed in seven months?

Denis O'Brien is a powerful public figure within the business, sporting and philanthropy communities in Ireland. Forbes has listed him as Ireland's second-richest billionaire in 2011.

Evidently he is a generous man, as Fine Gael and Lowry -- if you believe the tribunal -- will testify and last weekend O'Brien announced that he would sponsor several hundred thousand for the Farmleigh Asian Fellowship.

This is to be welcomed, but I'd actually prefer if he paid his taxes in Ireland first.

When British Telecom bought Esat in 2000 for IR£2.3bn, O'Brien made nearly a quarter of a billion arising from the sale of an asset granted by the State in a decision made by Lowry in the last Fine Gael-Labour government. O'Brien's decision to become a tax exile in Portugal shortly after the sale is estimated to have saved him over IR£50m in capital gains tax.

Imagine how many fellowship programmes the State could have funded with a fraction of IR£50m.

O'Brien's commanding wealth is just one source of his power. He controls Ireland's only independent national radio stations, Newstalk and Today FM.

He is the largest shareholder in Independent News and Media (INM), a stable which includes this newspaper as well as the Irish Independent, the Evening Herald and the Irish Daily Star.

He also owns Dublin 98, Spin 1038, Spin South West, 14 provincial newspapers, two free newspapers and a magazine.

Senator John Whelan made a profound statement in the Seanad last July which did not receive the attention it deserved at the time.

The former regional journalist and editor with 30 years of experience noted that there was "irrefutable evidence that across a broad range of print and broadcast-media outlets attempts have been made to shape the coverage and interfere with the reporting of the recent Moriarty Tribunal".

What did he possibly mean?

The coverage by Newstalk of the Moriarty Tribunal report is curious. On the day that the tribunal's report was issued, Newstalk's flagship Lunchtime Show gave most of its airtime to a vocal critic of the tribunal.

The Breakfast Show on the following day consisted of an interview with Denis O'Brien, which was used to attack the tribunal. Both shows were one-sided and unbalanced.

Is this what the senator was referring to? To what extent, if any, does Denis O'Brien exert editorial interference in his vast media empire?

Ireland is the way it is because the public accepts it, tolerates it and makes excuses for it. And it goes on and on and on. And things just happen to happen over and over again.

What changed in those seven months, Taoiseach?

Dr Elaine Byrne, Adjunct Lecturer in Politics, Trinity College Dublin, College Green

Sunday Independent

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