Tuesday 23 July 2019

'I deal with something on the tribunal every day. Every day'

Invited to interview magnate Denis O'Brien, Liam Collins found a man obsessed with Belgian chocolates, barristers' expenses and judges' rulings

The walls of his sixth-floor office on Dublin's Grand Canal quay are decorated with an eclectic mixture of oil paintings, old and modern, posters and radio memorabilia.

Denis O'Brien, 51, enters and shakes our hands firmly. Dressed in a well-cut blue suit that perfectly fits his large frame, he looks tanned, fit and rearing to have a go.

But first we have to do the photograph and so we go out onto the balcony with its views over the development on the other side of the harbour and of the Dublin mountains.

We exchange small talk about a mutual acquaintance. "Yeah, he was a good guy," says Mr O'Brien in his south Dublin drawl.

But that's the last good thing he has to say about anybody. Because Denis O'Brien wants to talk about Judge Michael Moriarty and the lawyers for the tribunal of the same name. For 12 years, they have doggedly pursued the awarding of the State's second mobile phone licence -- which is the basis of Mr O'Brien's fortune.

A busy man with a mobile network in the Caribbean, a much written-about 26 per cent stake in Independent News & Media, and many other property and business interests, why, one wonders, does he want to put advertisements in the newspapers with two Belgian chocolates and the heading: 'Expensive and Filled with Nuts', a reference to the Moriarty Tribunal.

LC: This advertising campaign has drawn people's attention -- is it a sign of desperation about the tribunal?

DO'B: Not at all. It's just to show the excessive waste that's going on -- when the bills come home to roost here in 2011 people will say: 'Well, why didn't you put your hand up and say this was going to cost the State €200m and that the lawyers were being paid vast amounts and working vast amounts of days.' You know, working 308 days (in a year) in one case. Somebody has to put up their hand and say, 'This is absolutely crazy, nuts'.

There's six counsel from the Law Library employed down there, three of them are juniors and they get paid €1,850 a day -- the senior counsel charge €2,500 a day.

I didn't create this situation okay, even though I'd probably be the person most closely associated with the tribunal, even more so than Michael Lowry over the last seven or eight years

LC: Is it to highlight this or do you feel something is coming to a conclusion?

DO'B: Well I don't see this tribunal concluding until 2011 because they've got so much work to do now.

Regarding the Nesbitt opinion (commissioned from barrister Richard Nesbitt, which advised the minister of the day to "not drag his feet" in issuing the licence) -- Michael Moriarty had it okay, read it and he knew that the Nesbitt opinion was bullet-proof in terms of proving that the civil service and the Department of Communications were absolutely justified in issuing the licence.

When you roll the video back to the very beginning... there was no need to investigate the licence because it had been investigated four times by the European Union, investigated by the senior counsel, investigated on behalf of the Department of Communications, investigated by the Attorney-General's office; so everybody did an investigation there's not a problem there -- these people won this licence fair and square.

Michael Lowry had no hand, act or part in the issuing of the licence and the crazy theories that were written in newspapers by people like Matt Cooper and Sam Smyth were basically off-the-wall and proven to be all wrong now. That's hard for them to take, but I don't blame them because they were relying on what they were being fed by the people who had lost, so that's journalism.

But we all the time said that is not true, okay? It's absolutely not true. From 1995 until now we said that it was all untrue and we now know it's totally untrue and what we've proven, right, is that those allegations are completely wrong.

LC: But if you've nothing to fear, why are you concerned?

DO'B: There no sense of proper justice here and if anything this is rough justice akin to what happened in the UK in the Seventies and Eighties. This is a very dark period for justice.

Moriarty is so intent on getting a report out that he actually now has to be courageous and this is the key thing -- does he have the courage to say 'I got this absolutely wrong and I should never have really gone into this because there's nothing in it?'. Instead, he's written a draft report where he's damning civil servants, he's damning me, he's damning everybody.

This is where the nuts ads drive it home -- you have barristers working 308 days a year... but a tribunal that sat for 11 days in one year doesn't need a barrister clocking in for 308 days. So, at the end of the day, if you take 2009, they did 15 days so far; 2008, 3 days; 2007, 17 days; 2006, 18 days and they did a whopping 25 days in 2005. Now, Jesus...

LC: These are sitting days?.

DO'B: They get paid every day, whether the tribunal is sitting or not. But worse still there was an error, a clerical error, in a letter agreeing their fees. If it was your electrician he'd say, 'I am awfully sorry I made a mistake' and he'd give you a refund. In this case, it was €250 multiplied by thousands of days, and they wouldn't give it back. These people are somehow above the normal ways of doing business. And don't forget, they have thrown rocks at everybody else on how other people do business, but when they overbill they don't refund.

LC: You have instigated a fair number of court cases over the years that delayed the tribunal's work...

DO'B: We didn't want to waste money -- Doncaster Rovers has probably cost the State €5m. We said all along, 'There is nothing in this. Michael Lowry had no hand, act nor part in this; every witness said he had no hand, act nor part in this, but you still want open hearings' -- so we went down for judicial review.

LC: What about your own relationship with Michael Lowry before and since?

DO'B: What relationship... Jesus.

LC: You met him for a pint in Houricans (in Leeson St).

DO'B: Everybody met him for a pint -- okay. Sorry. Michael Lowry is fighting his own battle and I have my own battle. That's as far as it goes.

LC: Did you have a friendship at the time?

DO'B: No is the answer to that question. He was the minister regulating the sector. We had a long-standing battle with the department that went on for five years... but we put in such a good bid. We just had a terrific bid, plus we had all the planning permission. We had the better package... The team that worked on this was top drawer.

LC: What do you think the tribunal verdict will be?

DO'B: Look, the draft finding was so wild and so unexpected. You have got to say, 'Wow, where is this all going?' Will Michael Moriarty now realise that basically (he has gone up) a dark alley and three key witnesses, four this week, just overthrew a whole slew of the findings like that (clicks the fingers).

LC: Is that part of the reason why you are doing these interviews now?

DO'B: I think people really need to understand what is going on. Worse still, Moriarty is still saying that he disagrees with the highest law officer in the land -- the Attorney-General -- and the last four of them... all of them have stood over this and said that this opinion (from Richard Nesbitt, which urged the government of the day to award the licence) answers what was asked of him.

LC: Are you expecting to get your own costs from the tribunal?

DO'B: Why would I not, I have co-operated fully with the tribunal, I have not claimed privilege on any document, I have not redacted any documents. I have given everything, even copies of trust documents okay, so, like, they cannot say that I have not co-operated.

LC: Would you not accept what Judge Michael Moriarty says, that he wants to get this over and done with.

DO'B: It's time versus your reputation. I would go for my reputation any day.

LC: When you did get the licence, you went to Portugal as a tax exile and now you are giving out about taxpayers' money. . .

DO'B: That has nothing to do with it... I live wherever I want to live. I didn't have to come back and co-operate with this tribunal... I am entitled to my opinion. If I think that money is being squandered I think I should put up my hand and say, 'This is absolutely wrong'. Because they are looking for some scapegoat here... They'll be

saying, 'Jesus, it was Denis O'Brien who got the licence; if he didn't win the licence, we would never have needed to set up the tribunal.' I mean, for God's sake.

LC: If you set up a tribunal you have to have an outcome.

DO'B: No, you could turn around and say there is nothing untoward here. Now that is a brave thing to say, the gutless thing to do is... throw it at people and pin it on them. The 9/11 Report took 18 months; this thing is going 12 years... it feels like a lifetime.

I deal with something on the tribunal every day. Everyday. I get a phone call from my solicitor, or a call to say there is another letter or fax. There is an anonymous letter in -- I was away on holidays with my family and I was called back, for 12 minutes, for an anonymous letter. (At this point he refers to the birth of his daughter). It was a very complicated birth and I said I couldn't go in the next day and Moriarty asked for my wife's medical records...

I should have then said, 'This is not justice, this is rough justice.' That was the lowest point for me, and getting the draft findings and the way Moriarty has sat and knew about the Nesbitt thing, had read it, and then made a negative finding.

LC: But the Moriarty and the Mahon tribunals have unearthed corruption.

DO'B: I'm focused on my tribunal, the work of other tribunals is something else and I've given an example of Morris, which I believe is a well-run tribunal -- this case is completely different, it's much more personal.

Mahon is investigating the planning corruption with solid evidence; Moriarty is investigating one decision made by a minister, which the minister didn't make. There's no comparison between what Judge Mahon and his team are investigating; there's no comparison between Mahon and allegations of bribery of county councillors and builders and Dunlop et al. I mean that has produced solid results, and, in fairness to Moriarty, he delivered results on Haughey -- and Morris has delivered huge results on Garda corruption up in Donegal. But Moriarty is investigating one single decision made by Lowry and Lowry has suffered and I'm not pleading for him, he's suffered massive damage mostly at the hands of Sam Smyth -- who every time calls him disgraced former minister.

And Fintan O'Toole -- yeah, but the Irish Times have made a thing that they're going to be the tribunal newspaper. Colm Keena goes up there and I have to say he listens to stuff that nobody else listens to because he misses everything. When I read the transcript the night before, I say, 'Jesus that's fantastic stuff; we're going to get a headline' and next thing you read the thing from Colm -- you may as well be reading the Beano.

LC: Do you read the transcripts of the tribunal?

DO'B: I read everything, everything -- have a guess how many days they've sat in 12 years.

LC: 700 days?

DO'B: They've sat 369 days... an average of 30 days a year. But there are barristers down there who have billed for 308 days and two chocolates and no Toblerones (one of the tribunal's barristers claimed for chocolates on expenses, and the claim was allowed, while a tribunal solicitor's claim for a Toblerone was disallowed).

LC: In terms of yourself and your business and family life, has the tribunal had an effect?

DO'B: Absolutely. What happens here, it's totally wrong. They do an inflammatory opening statement, where they say 'Look at this and that', and they throw every bit of dirt at you and it takes you eight years to clean it off you. At that stage, the press are not interested and that's alright because it's not the story -- but basically your reputation has been pilloried, and then you try and recover that reputation eight years later. It's totally flawed, the system.

You can't lie down, you lie down you get killed, you can't lie down and just accept it.

LC: In general, do you think you get a fair shake from the media?

DO'B: I think historically people probably regret some of the stuff they wrote, if they really know what happened. I think people make mistakes.

LC: When do you think the tribunal will finish -- you mentioned 2011?

DO'B: This is a €200m tribunal, it's not €36m. You have 50 people down there on a good day and they are all clocking like crazy.

LC: Do you ever sit back and say, 'I wish I made a fortune elsewhere and not be involved in this'.

DO'B: The thing that motivates me more than anything else is that we had a couple of thousand people in our business and all those people know that we won this licence fair and square, so it behoves me to fight the fight, to make sure that the truth comes out. And yeah, we have fought for the Nesbitt opinion and so has Dermot Desmond to be fair, but nobody else has done anything about it.

LC: Can I ask you one further question about the state we are in? What do you think of the country; how do you think things stand at the moment?

DO'B: I think we're taking the right steps. It has been an extraordinarily tough time for the Taoiseach Brian Cowen and the Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan. But I think Ireland's reputation is recovering hugely because of the steps we have taken as a country in the last six months and that is very, very important.

I travel a lot, and, in New York and London, they now say, 'You are making the right decisions'. Tough decisions have had to be made, and I think that is reflected in the cost of borrowing. I think we are way too critical of people in office and its unfathomable the pressure that has been put on this country and the personal abuse that he (Brian Cowen) has got is disgusting. People are human.

LC: Do you think it's the same situation for the bankers and builders.

DO'B: That's a whole new story... if I had an hour.

LC: Ok, I'd gladly do that.

DO'B: Laughs.

The interview is at an end. We shake hands. The next reporter and photographer are already marching purposefully towards the private lift and the sixth floor anger.

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