Wednesday 17 January 2018

Denis O'Brien says he pays taxes in Ireland

Denis O'Brien arriving at the Four Courts Pic: Collins Courts
Denis O'Brien arriving at the Four Courts Pic: Collins Courts

Tim Healy

BUSINESSMAN Denis O'Brien told the High Court today he pays his taxes in Ireland and in all the countries he and his company Digicel are connected with.

To say he was a tax exile because he lives abroad was not correct as he spent three-quarters of his time abroad because the Digicel Group, of which he is chairman, has interests from Fiji to the Carribean, he said.

Mr O'Brien was giving evidence on his third day in the witness box in his defamation action over an Irish Daily Mail article which he says accused him of being a hypocrite over his efforts to assist in the aftermath of the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti in 2010.

The article, published on January 22, 2010 and written by Paul Drury was headlined: "Moriarty is about to report, no wonder Denis O'Brien is acting the saint in stricken Haiti."

He says it meant what he was doing in Haiti was motivated by self interest and designed to deflect attention away from the Moriarty Tribunal report which contained findings adverse to Mr O'Brien but which he strongly disputes.

The Mail, two of its editors, and the author of the article, deny the claims and say it was a piece of opinion honestly held and based on facts Mr Drury believed were true.

Under continuing cross-examination yesterday by Oisin Quinn SC, for the defendants, Mr O'Brien said that as a shareholder in Esat Digifone, which won the second mobile phone licence in 1995, he received €295m from the subsequent sale of the company to British Telecom in 2000.

In 2012,  he agreed he received hundreds of millions of dollars in dividends from the Digicel Group but disagreed that because he was now "living in a flat in Malta" that he did not pay any tax on that.

"I pay all my taxes in Ireland.  I am a significant taxpayer in Ireland and that was one of the incorrect things (in the Mail article) describing me as a tax exile."

He disagreed the main reason he moved to Malta was for tax.

"I do not work in Ireland, I have some business here but 95per cent of my businesses are scattered round the world."

Pressed later by Mr Quinn that he had never complained about being described in the Mail article as a tax exile, Mr O'Brien insisted that a tax exile was someone who did not pay their taxes in Ireland. "I pay all my PAYE and I would be one of the largest taxpayers," he said.

Mr O'Brien agreed that as an owner of one of the biggest media companies in Ireland, Independent News and Media (INM), it was right that one can be free to express an opinion but, he said, only if they do not libel someone.

Counsel put it to him he would appreciate it was in the public interest  that newspapers should get behind journalists who are prepared to say critical things about powerful people.

Mr O'Brien replied that while he was a shareholder in INM, he did not control it.

He did control the radio stations Newstalk and Today FM and they had a policy, if something incorrect is broadcast about someone, they will ring that person immediately and say sorry and correct what has been said.

This happened on a number of occasions and he himself had rang the people involved who would say "at least they have owned up".

He believed this was the best way of dealing with people rather than "fighting behind lawyers."

He disagreed that he could have dealt with his case over the Mail article through a right of reply that he was offered or through the Press Council which he said does not have "any significant role."

The court also heard about the efforts of Digicel personnel to assist RTE reporter Charlie Bird, whose interviews in Haiti with Mr O'Brien were referred to in the Mail article, getting into the country after the earthquake.

Mr O'Brien agreed the company had organised Mr Bird's flights in and out of the country because of major difficulties caused by the quake.

It had also loaned him a satellite phone and helped in getting a car for him and his camera man while in Haiti.

Mr O'Brien said the company helped Mr Bird, who he described as "a little bit of high maintenance", in the same way as it had helped many others during the disaster, including aid workers.

The case resumes on Tuesday.

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