Wednesday 22 October 2014

Money can't buy me love

Published 17/02/2008 | 00:00

DENIS O'BRIEN: One of his army of spinners must have told him of the benefits of soccer patronage

A cool million for the new Ireland soccer manager, Giovanni Trapattoni. €62 million for Denis.

Businessmen who long to be loved are volatile creatures.

Once upon a time there was a little businessman called Denis. He was an ordinary, likeable bloke. A keen rugby enthusiast, a member of Wanderers rugby club, he came from a solid middle-class background. He was privately educated, at High School Dublin, University College Dublin and the Smurfit School of Business. He was no star but an enthusiastic, ambitious risk taker.

Friends say he was a Beatles fan. Perhaps his favourite song was Can't Buy Me Love.

Lots of us loved Denis. He was, fleetingly, a symbol of the Celtic Tiger's success.

Last week he made an extraordinary gesture, donating a million to save Irish soccer.

Denis the businessman is now Denis the patriot.

Traditional Irish patriotism is dead. Today there is one overwhelming outlet for its expression. Soccer is the new religion. The way to the hearts of the Irish masses is -- once again -- over the green turf of Croke Park.

One of Denis's army of spinners must have told him about the benefits of soccer patronage.

Denis has less of a soccer pedigree than his one-time colleague financier, Dermot Desmond. Dermot bought and nurtured Celtic Football Club. He attends many of their matches. Celtic is not a glamorous team, but Dermot is loyal to the last.

Denis always seemed more interested in rugby. But a few months ago he spotted a chance to prove his heart lies in Irish soccer, even if the rest of his body resides elsewhere.

It is difficult to know where Denis lives these days. It used to be Portugal. Today it is supposed to be Malta. The rules of his patriotism do not involve him living in the nation whose football team he is part-funding with loose change from his back pocket.

Wherever it is, he saved €63m in taxes by moving out of the country he loves.

Last week he gave one back. Sixty two to go.

Denis netted €317m from the sale of his Esat Digifone mobile company to BT. Not a sinner begrudged him a penny. He had taken a risk . It worked. A decent Irishman had made a mint. We all secretly identified with his success.

Unfortunately Denis, the little businessman, became Denis the tycoon.

Denis changed.

Around the same time as he moved abroad, Bank of Ireland, in search of a director with a high-tech profile, head hunted Denis to the board. He was parachuted into the deputy governor's job. Suddenly he was in line for the governorship. Astonishingly, he was recognised by the business establishment as a popular entrepreneur. His ego ballooned.

Somehow, around this time, Denis lost the run of himself. His boots got too small for his feet. His head no longer fitted into his hat.

Summonses to attend the Moriarty tribunal and enquiries into how he won the mobile licence were met with truculence. His appearance before an Oireachtas committee prompted Denis into an intemperate attack on the chair. Denis suddenly gave the impression that no Irish tribunal or group of TDs was going to corral a great businessman. He flew impatiently into tribunal meetings on his private jet from his villa in the Algarve.

Then, nostalgic for the buzz of business, O'Brien launched an attempt to take over Eircom. He failed. He was soundly bested in this battle by Sir Anthony O'Reilly, chairman of Independent News and Media.

O'Brien has never forgiven O'Reilly. Ever since this defeat he has been sniping at the O'Reilly family from the sidelines. Sir Anthony has been too dignified to hit back at these highly personalised attacks in similar vein.

Denis's gentle, friendly personality seemed to have transformed. Entrepreneurship was being replaced by retaliation.

As events at the tribunal in Dublin Castle unfolded, Denis gave up his beloved Bank of Ireland because he was apparently too busy. The Governorship goal was gone.

Instead, he headed for the Caribbean. There he runs Digicel, another mobile company which claims six million subscribers. Industry sources are divided about its prospects and its funding methods.

But all the time he is eyeing Ireland, where he appears to suffer from a chronic dose of media mania. Initially, he owned Newstalk, the fledgling challenger to RTE. Next he bought Today FM, to capture two out of the three biggest national radio stations for his empire. He retains ownership of Spin FM, Highland Radio and 98 FM. He has fierce ambitions in Irish media, albeit from his Maltese perch.

Two radio stations would be enough for a normal mortal, but not for Denis. Two years ago Denis began to buy shares in Independent News & Media. His series of purchases, right up to his present holding of 18 per cent, have been accompanied by the same pattern of personalised onslaughts on O'Reilly.

Nothing has emerged from his criticisms of the company or its bosses, although it is clear that he is no fan of the company's chief executive.

The wounds of the rout at Eircom remain raw.

O'Brien would love to own this, the biggest media publishing group in Ireland. More patriotism, perhaps?

He is unlikely to succeed. His manoeuvrings have two glaring flaws.

First, O'Brien knows as much about running a newspaper empire as he does about running a dog's home. If he were ever to seize control, the Indo's shares would tank immediately, as investors tore towards the exits.

Second, there are the ambitions of the mobile patriot. Could any Irish government allow one man to hold editorial control over two of the top three national radio stations, as well as the biggest newspaper group in the country?

The Indo has often been mistakenly criticised for newspaper media dominance, but cross-media dominance would be a very serious development.

Denis is much more likely to gain acceptance for his brazen ambitions if he re-establishes himself as a super-popular figure prior to any possible adverse findings by the Moriarty tribunal later this year. Timing is everything.

The man who normally deftly dodges the press behind a squadron of PR spivs, suddenly surfaced last week to take all the plaudits for saving Irish soccer. Denis popped up on selected programmes to tell the waiting Irish people why he had decided to take this heroic step. Football was his passion.

Can you not already see the masses cheering him to the rooftops as he steps onto the Croke Park turf, shoulder to shoulder with Trapattoni, for his first match at Croke Park?

Denis had an option. He could have kept his silence, just donated the money and told no one. He decided to let the world know of his generosity to save the nation.

But he still owes us €62m.

Money can't buy you love.

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