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Pressure grows on Coalition over its O'Brien contacts


THE Government was under mounting pressure last night over its relationship with businessman Denis O'Brien.

Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin became the most senior member of the Government to express reservations about coalition contacts with Mr O'Brien a year on from the Moriarty Tribunal report.

Mr Howlin said "there should be consequences" for those against whom a tribunal makes an adverse finding.

Although the minister said the Cabinet had not discussed "the list of people to be shunned", he added: "If future invitations are to be issued, I am sure those matters will be discussed at Cabinet."

The minister made his comments while speaking on behalf of the Government during Leader's Questions in the Dail yesterday.

He said: "From my personal perspective, there should be a consequence for those well-known people, or not, against whom adverse findings are adduced by a tribunal of inquiry."

Mr Howlin's remarks follow the furore over Taoiseach Enda Kenny's appearance with Mr O'Brien at the New York stock exchange last week.

The Labour Party minister also faced questions about the Government's invitation to Mr O'Brien to attend the Global Irish Economic Forum last year.

He said the list of those invited was based on the invitation list for the first forum held by the previous government.

Mr Howlin's comments follow those by Social Welfare Minister Joan Burton, who said on Wednesday that there was "considerable public and political unease" about Mr O'Brien appearing at a public event with the Taoiseach.

Ms Burton said Mr Kenny was invited to attend the New York stock exchange event but the organisers decided who else was on the balcony for the bell ringing ceremony.

"It is perhaps time for the Government to reflect on how it should in future interact with people against whom adverse findings have been made by tribunals," she added.

European Affairs Minister Lucinda Creighton also said she was uncomfortable with Mr O'Brien's attendance.

Mr Kenny evaded questions this week on donations received by Fine Gael from bidders for the lucrative second mobile phone licence in the 1990s.

The licence was awarded to Mr O'Brien's Esat group, which the Moriarty Tribunal found made donations to Fine Gael.

In its final report, published last year, the tribunal detailed the investigation into possible links between Mr O'Brien and then Communications Minister Michael Lowry, who awarded the second mobile telephone licence to the businessman's consortium in 1995.

The report stated: "It is beyond doubt that...Mr Lowry imparted substantive information to Mr O'Brien, of significant value and assistance to him in securing the licence."

The report also found Mr O'Brien made or facilitated payments to Mr Lowry of a combined stg£447,000 (e572,000) and support for a loan of £420,000 (e503,000).

Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin this week accused Fine Gael ministers of choosing to "cherry-pick" parts of the Moriarty Tribunal for comment.

"Justice Moriarty showed how there was a pattern of donations to Fine Gael by bidders for the second mobile licence which began shortly after the party entered government.

"In relation to Esat, he laid out how 15 donations were made to the party in the run-up to the awarding of the licence," he said.

When asked to respond to Mr Martin's claims and comment on why Fine Gael has not been more clear about its donations at the time of the mobile phone licence, Mr Kenny failed to make any reference to his party and accused Mr Martin of "diversionary tactics".

"In respect to the Moriarty Tribunal, when this was published we sent it off to the relative authorities," Mr Kenny said.

"We had a motion of censure in the Dail against Deputy Lowry. Ministers would be expected to respond both to Mahon and to the continuing follow through from the recommendations from Moriarty into the next month," he said.

Sinn Fein deputy leader Mary-Lou McDonald yesterday pointed out the concerns expressed by a number of ministers about contacts with Mr O'Brien.

"It seems the Taoiseach takes a different view, beaming as he was in a photograph with that individual. I ask the minister to set out his position on this matter and the position of the Government," she said to the ministers.

Mr Howlin said the Taoiseach was invited to the New York stock exchange event and "he did not issue invitations".

"Others were also invited," he said.

Mr Howlin said nobody could control the people who they were photographed with.

"There were adverse comments about the attendance of Mr O'Brien and we must all reflect on that," he said.

Irish Independent