News Analysis

Thursday 2 October 2014

Anne Harris: Please don't stand so close to me

Those who have been willing to speak out against Denis O'Brien's links to Fine Gael have done the State some service, writes Anne Harris

Published 01/04/2012 | 05:00

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GOOD things happened last week. Things that show that democracy is still a robust child in Ireland.

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The women -- Lucinda Creighton and Joan Burton -- who belled the cat of the New York Stock Exchange, were not left standing out in the cold on their own. Brendan Howlin, like some unassailable catechist, joined them: his language -- appropriately for this Lenten period -- accessible to all

"There should be consequences" for people, well known or otherwise, he said, "against whom adverse findings are adduced by a tribunal of inquiry"!

Thus was nailed precisely what was wrong with Denis O'Brien standing so close to the Taoiseach at the bell ringing on the New York Stock Exchange.

Let me declare an interest.

There is a danger that in the very near future, control of the largest newspaper group in the country -- this group -- may fall into the bailiwick of a man who already owns several broadcasting licences and against whom adverse findings were indeed adduced by Mr Justice Moriarty -- in short, that he spent years funnelling hundreds of thousands of euro to Michael Lowry and that he got information from Lowry that led to his being awarded the biggest and most lucrative contract in the history of the State.

Many of the Fine Gael members of the current Cabinet were members of the cabinet that presided over that decision. Is it any wonder that they don't quite get what the New York Stock Exchange hoopla is about?

But they may find that the simple expedient of throwing Michael Lowry out of the party and hoping it would all go away will fail to satisfy the public's growing unease.

If the performance of Paschal Donohoe on Prime Time is anything to go by, Fine Gael is unapologetic. Denis O'Brien is about jobs. 'Don't hit me with Denis and his jobs in my arms' was the thrust of his comments.

Jobs are vital -- true. But as letters published on page 4 today reveal, the Fine Gael leadership did not show such a fine sensitivity to jobs when John Mitchell of Motorola (part of the consortium deemed the leading contender for the licence) wrote to the then Taoiseach, John Bruton, voicing his concern at the potential loss of jobs elsewhere when the licence went to O'Brien.

Some in power have privately voiced the opinion that this is all about a boardroom battle in INM and nothing at all to do with the findings of the Moriarty tribunal.

Yes, the dogs in the street know there is a boardroom battle for control of INM and nothing could be further from the concerns of the hard-pressed Irish public than a boardroom battle. But this one is relevant.

It concerns a man who, as we all witnessed these last weeks, is too close to the instruments of power in this State.

It must seem highly desirable to a Government which has the largest majority in the history of the State to have a co-operative media. Life would be a lot less awkward. With that kind of majority, dissent carries no risk of destabilisation. The real risk lies in appearing dictatorial.

The politician's job is to make decisions. The media's job is to be a watchdog on those decisions. Politicians are there to call the shots. The media is there to express dissenting opinions where necessary. But when fear enters the room -- and it has -- a real opposition is needed. The media is that opposition.

The clear and present danger to Irish democracy is not just a businessman who has been found to have profited from what Mr Justice Mahon in another tribunal called the "endemic corruption" in Irish politics, it is that the majority government party is happy to clasp him to their bosom with hoops of steel.

One public embrace might be an accident but three -- Davos, Dublin Castle and the New York Stock Exchange -- that is a declaration of love.

The politicians who have spoken deserve our gratitude. Joan Burton and Brendan Howlin -- lightning conductor and earthwire respectively of the Labour Party -- will survive. The wheels of the Labour Party may grind slowly, but as our page 1 story reveals, grind they will.

Lucinda Creighton is in a lonelier corner altogether. Her leader yesterday refused to commit to mending this situation. Clearly there are two Fine Gaels. One has a moral compass. Join them up, Enda.

Sunday Independent

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