John Drennan

Friday 25 July 2014

John Drennan: Coalition splits over O'Brien's media plan

Rabbitte concerned at tardy transfer of media ownership powers to Labour

JOHN DRENNAN

Published 01/04/2012|05:00

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MONEY TALKS: Taoiseach Enda Kenny ringing the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange recently, flanked by business people including Denis O'Brien, third from left. The event was sponsored by Ireland Inc. Denis O'Brien is a key advisory member of that organisation

A serious rift is developing between the coalition partners over the politically sensitive issue of proposed reforms in the area of media ownership.

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Earlier this year, Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte signalled his determination to move swiftly to reform the outdated laws which currently apply to this sector.

However, critically, before Mr Rabbitte can move in this area, powers currently held by Richard Bruton's Enterprise Department have to be transferred to Mr Rabbitte.

And the Sunday Independent has learned that the slow pace with which this transfer is occurring has sparked serious discontent within the hierarchy of the Labour Party.

The revelation comes in the wake of increasingly public concern by Labour over the apparently warm relations between certain elements of the Fine Gael Cabinet and media tycoon Denis O'Brien.

Despite protestations by Fine Gael that it has no control over who the Taoiseach meets, the tycoon was warmly greeted by Enda Kenny on the podium of the New York Stock Exchange last month.

But last night Mr Kenny sought to defend his recent interactions with Mr O'Brien, saying the interaction between business and political funding "should be based solely on achieving economic recovery through creating jobs".

When asked earlier yesterday if Mr O'Brien would be invited to next year's economic forum, he left open the possibility, saying: "the list for next year's economic forum has not even been considered yet".

Any further invitations from Mr Kenny to Mr O'Brien are bound to deepen the tensions within the Coalition. Labour is increasingly unhappy at the cosy relationship.

In his speech last night, Mr Kenny said: "The shameful and corrupt practices revealed in the Moriarty and Mahon tribunal reports must never be allowed to happen again. That's why this Government is taking firm action to break the link between business and political funding.

"That interaction should be based solely on achieving economic recovery through creating jobs."

However, at the Dail debate on the Mahon tribunal report, Social Protection Minister Joan Burton said that the Government should reflect on how it should in future interact with people "against whom adverse findings have been made by tribunals''.

Ms Burton also warned that Ireland did not want a "return to the days of, 'uno Duce, una voce'" or a "Berlusconi-style media political complex with its attendant codes of omerta undermining the principles of transparent democracy".

Significantly, the outspoken minister's concerns were echoed by Brendan Howlin, who noted of the controversies sparked by the attendance of Mr O'Brien at the New York Stock Exchange and the Global Irish Economic Forum, that "we must all reflect on'' the "adverse comments about the attendance of Mr O'Brien''.

The Public Sector Reform Minister issued a further shot across the bows of his Fine Gael colleagues as he noted that in future invitations to such events would have to be "discussed in Cabinet''.

The public expressions of unhappiness are indicative of even greater private tensions between the coalition partners as Labour members are privately seething and increasingly suspicious about the nature of Fine Gael's tangled exchanges with Mr O'Brien.

Top-level figures claimed that their coalition partners at best equivocal attitude to Mr O'Brien is "informed by the belief that Mr O'Brien will win control of Independent Newspapers. They don't want to fall out with him".

This view was confirmed by another senior Labour figure who said of Fine Gael's relationship with Mr O'Brien: "They think he'll win, they're backing their horse.''

This scenario means the failure of Mr Bruton to transfer powers over the media to Mr Rabbitte is being viewed with increasing alarm.

Mr Rabbitte has not commented. It is, however, believed that he is deeply unhappy over the delay.

Senior figures within Labour noted that "Pat is obviously deeply circumscribed by what he can say but it would be surprising if he were not to be deeply frustrated by a rate of progress on the Media Mergers Bill that is far slower than movements within the sector''.

Another source said it was "absolutely the case that Pat is unhappy. The transfer of powers was supposed to have happened by now. Nobody appears to know what is happening."

A spokesperson for Mr Bruton's department said that "proposals to give effect to the recommendations of the Advisory Group on Media Mergers. . . will be included in the Consumer and Competition Bill. The bill is being drafted and is progressing in the normal way and it is expected that it will be published in the autumn.''

However, the Sunday Independent has learned that a number of other Labour ministers are also "deeply surprised the matter hasn't moved on faster''.

Top-level sources confirmed that "this is a huge potential area for conflict. Denis is the Banquo's ghost at cabinet meetings. He is there but never spoken about, the mogul whose name you dare not speak''.

Another Labour source added: "Of all the issues between Fine Gael and Labour, this is the one that is least easily controlled."

Speaking to the Sunday Independent one senior figure said: "We will not lie down quietly before the takeover of the Irish media by one individual. It is not possible.''

Other Labour figures, citing Labour's problematic relationship with Independent Newspapers over recent years added "it is simply unconscionable that we would own or stand over one man having so much control".

Fine Gael ministers have claimed variously that the Taoiseach has no control over who shares a public platform with him, though on at least one occasion Mr O'Brien was there as an invited guest of the Government.

And Labour also warned that if the Media Mergers Bill is not resolved "before potentially the biggest media takeover in the history of the State'' divisions between the coalition partners could accelerate very swiftly.

Lucinda Creighton, the Fine Gael junior minister for Europe, suggested that Mr O'Brien's close association with Government might have to be tolerated.

"I think the Moriarty findings are extremely serious and I don't think that anybody in Government can afford to brush them aside, she said.

"But Denis O'Brien's role in his engagement with Bill Clinton and in particular with the Irish diaspora and potential investors, is an important one."

Sunday Independent

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