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O'Brien's case is lost in his fury

SURREAL may be stretching a point, but Denis O'Brien's hastily organised press conference on Friday afternoon in the Merrion Hotel edged into the realm of a different reality. O'Brien is a man obsessed, angry with the world and convinced of the conspiracy that is ranged against him.

He wants justice, he demands the truth, but it is abundantly clear that for O'Brien there is only one truth, only one version of events that passes muster, and that is his version. Anything less is a distortion, a deliberate attempt to smear and pull him down. His passion and self-belief are undeniable; self-doubt is not part of the public image and it would be surprising to discover it in the private self.

O'Brien's arrival on Friday sent the assembled photographers into a frenzy of snapping and flashing lights as he strode purposefully to a small podium to face his assembled audience of seasoned tribunal followers and curious hacks.

Bizarrely, as he launched into an impassioned denunciation of the Moriarty Tribunal, the image that sprang to mind was not of a businessman facing down his detractors but of an American president addressing the assembled White House press corps. O'Brien is comfortable with his platform, comfortable with the TV lights and the incessantly flashing bulbs and comfortable with his audience.

To the regulars, O'Brien's style is so familiar that it washes over them but for the uninitiated it is a revelation.

There is no holding back, no quarter given. He is angry and he is prepared to let rip. O'Brien wants an independent investigator appointed to trawl though all the documents over the past nine years.

Then he wants the documents distributed and witnesses recalled and re-examined -- effectively starting the tribunal all over again.

O'Brien's central theme is that the Tribunal is determined to get him, and does not care how it does it. He has already said that the Judge Moriarty has made a provisional finding, circulated last year to those involved, that the awarding of a mobile phone licence to O'Brien's ESAT consortium was illegal. O'Brien is demanding that Moriarty tear up those original findings and produce a new report that clears his name.

He said on Friday that there had been a seismic and "transformational" change of direction by Moriarty on Thursday when the tribunal chairman said that his report would be based on evidence, not speculation. By implication, O'Brien was suggesting that Moriarty had intended to produce a report based on innuendo, speculation, anonymous tip-offs and guesswork. Replying to a question from Sam Smyth, O'Brien said he would like to see that evidence pass the tests imposed in a criminal trial.

O'Brien's obsession is understandable. His reputation is on the line and an adverse finding from Moriarty would brand him a liar and a corrupter of the political process. He has faced investigation for almost a decade, has spent millions on his own defence, has lived under the shadow of perceived corruption from the moment the tribunal started to investigate the deal. He rails against a process that trumpets allegations -- no matter how spurious -- but which downplays the measured responses that counter them. He feels traduced, sees the tribunal as a

persecution, says that all the evidence points categorically to his innocence and is emphatic in his belief that the licence was won fairly, squarely and legally.

Yet his obsession, his war with the tribunal and his spats with the media fall largely on deaf ears. Public interest in the Moriarty Tribunal has evaporated, its length and complexity sucking life and interest from all but those most intimately involved. All the public needs to know was whether Michael Lowry, the then minister responsible, acted inappropriately at any stage of the licence process, and if he received any cash for doing so. Lowry denies impropriety and financial gain. That is where the public interest lies, and it has taken nine years and tens of millions of euros to reach a point where O'Brien feels we need to start again.

O'Brien by expressing his rage so publicly, and so bombastically, risks courting snickers, not sympathy. Judge Moriarty expressed his own bewilderment at the level of public relations 'spin' that swirls around the tribunal -- O'Brien was accompanied by four PR handlers at Friday's conference -- and must, after more than a decade, want nothing more than an end to it.

O'Brien, though, will fight to his last cent to make the ending he wants -- his truth, his reality, his reputation intact. The battle is far from over and Moriarty's findings may not be known for many months -- or even years if O'Brien gets his way. Until then the spats with the Tribunal lawyers, and the accompanying presidential-style press conferences, will continue in the parallel universe that tribunal-land has become.

Sunday Independent