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Maeve Sheehan: Kenny's perfect PR photo ruined by his association with O'Brien

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FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS: Taoiseach Enda Kenny ringing the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange last Monday as part of his St Patrick’s festival trip to the States, an event sponsored by Irelandinc.com. Businessman Denis O’Brien, third from left, was also in attendance

FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS: Taoiseach Enda Kenny ringing the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange last Monday as part of his St Patrick’s festival trip to the States, an event sponsored by Irelandinc.com. Businessman Denis O’Brien, third from left, was also in attendance

FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS: Taoiseach Enda Kenny ringing the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange last Monday as part of his St Patrick’s festival trip to the States, an event sponsored by Irelandinc.com. Businessman Denis O’Brien, third from left, was also in attendance

IT seemed like a perfect PR moment when, last Monday morning, Taoiseach Enda Kenny stood on the podium on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange to ring the opening bell.

A chorus of heavyweight Irish and American business leaders invited to view the event from the balcony clapped at his shoulder. Mr Kenny, with his half-cocked head and lopsided grin, seemed relaxed, while his corporate cheerleaders exuded positive vibes.

For the Taoiseach, this was an important PR opportunity, a chance to reinforce the message he had been pushing since he arrived on his St Patrick's Day trip: that corporate Ireland is alive and well, and open for business.

As if to prove his case, the 20 corporate luminaries huddled in close and smiled for the NYSE photographer who captured the moment and promptly syndicated it to international media agencies.

The business people were not guests of the Taoiseach but most were delegates at Ireland Day, a $1,000-a-head conference promoting Irish-American business links going on in the upper floors of the NYSE, and organised by Ian Hyland. Banners hung from the balustrades of the podium, bearing the logos of Ireland Day and Ireland Inc, an Irish business network which Mr Hyland had just launched that day.

It was a coup for Mr Hyland, who flanked the Taoiseach as he pressed the button to ring the opening bell. And it could have been a perfect PR moment for Mr Kenny too, were it not for the gentleman standing near the Taoiseach in the photograph: Denis O'Brien.

The international telecoms billionaire was one of the biggest hitters in the line-up: he ranks 205th in the Forbes rich list with a $5bn (€3.77bn) fortune, runs an international mobile phone giant, has substantial media interests, he is a buddy of former president Bill Clinton and his charitable efforts to rebuild Haiti since the earthquake in 2010 have won him acclaim in the US.

Back home, Mr O'Brien's achievements were overshadowed by the Moriarty tribunal on payments to politicians, which harshly criticised the tycoon when it reported last year. Mr Justice Michael Moriarty found that Mr O'Brien gave Michael Lowry, then a Fine Gael minister, money. The minister gave the businessman information that helped "secure the winning" of the lucrative mobile phone licence from the State. No further conclusions were drawn and Mr O'Brien has trenchantly rubbished the findings. Mr Kenny promised at the time not to let the report gather dust.

One year on, gardai are still dithering on whether there are grounds to investigate Mr Lowry's finances. The Taoiseach shared a platform with the man who was found to have made payments to Mr Lowry. And all this days before the Mahon tribunal highlighted the corrupting nature of the conflicts of interests that can arise when business and politics meet.

Fianna Fail, swamped in Mahon's findings of corruption, saw an opportunity and took it. Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin threw Fine Gael's record on Moriarty right back at it, saying the appearance of the Taoiseach with Mr O'Brien "shouldn't have happened".

When Prime Time debated the fallout of the Mahon report on RTE last Thursday night, Dara Calleary opened the wound with Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte: "I would remind the minister that the current most senior figure in the land, the Taoiseach, was prepared to share a platform in New York with an individual against whom there was serious findings in the Moriarty tribunal," Mr Calleary said, in a reference to Mr O'Brien.

As presenter Miriam O'Callaghan, academic Elaine Byrne and journalist Sam Smyth pressed him on how inappropriate it seemed, Mr Rabbitte appeared uncomfortable. He said there were "serious questions" over O'Brien's conduct at the time but, nevertheless, insisted his sharing a platform with the Taoiseach didn't send the wrong signal.

In a week when Fianna Fail was mired once again in corruption allegations, the photograph of O'Brien and Kenny brought Moriarty back to haunt Fine Gael

How did the Taoiseach come to share a world stage with Mr O'Brien on the first anniversary of the publication of the Moriarty report and days before the Mahon tribunal's?

The photograph goes back to Mr Hyland, the publisher of Business & Finance magazine and a well-connected businessman, who is embarking on an ambitious new network business in the US and Asia, promoting Ireland's business links.

While Business & Finance has had some financial difficulties back home, abroad he has been expanding his networking events in the US and Asia.

He has set up a trio of entities: Ireland Day, a business "summit" launched last year in a tie-in with the New York Stock Exchange; the Irish American Business Association; and Ireland Inc, which "represents and advances" Irish business interests abroad. As the organiser of numerous gong ceremonies in the past, Mr Hyland, well-connected in business circles, has played host in Dublin to big names like Mr Clinton.

Mr O'Brien's long-time friend and adviser, Paul Connolly, is a co-director of several companies with Mr Hyland. Mr Connolly also chairs Elevation Media, the company that created Ireland Day and Ireland Inc. Mr Hyland is a director of Haven US, the American arm of the charity founded by Leslie Buckley, a close colleague of Mr O'Brien's and founder of his mobile phone business. Mr O'Brien sits on Haven's Irish board.

It is not surprising that Mr O'Brien should support Mr Hyland's Irish American Business Association. Both Mr O'Brien and Dermot Desmond, the business tycoon, are listed as advisers, along with Peter Sutherland. The IABA appears to be a broad church. Mr O'Brien and Mr Desmond are shareholders in Independent News and Media, which publishes this newspaper.

Yet IABA's "prominent US-based members" include Cameron O'Reilly, a member of the O'Reilly family whom Mr O'Brien has been fighting for control of INM. Cameron's brother, Tony, of Providence Resources, shared the podium with Mr O'Brien at the Ireland Day conference this year and last -- something that Mr Hyland's spokesman said was "important to note".

When the Taoiseach rolled into the New York Stock Exchange for the bell-ringing ceremony, it was on foot of a longstanding invitation from Duncan Niederauer, chief executive of the NYSE Euronext.

NYSE Euronext jointly hosts Ireland Day with Ireland Inc. And according to Mr Hyland, the New York Stock Exchange "offered" him the bell-ringing ceremony "with the intention of it forming a key component of the Ireland Day format".

Mr Hyland hung his banners from the balustrades and selected the guests who would stand beside the Taoiseach on the podium. He chose 20 or so representative guests from the 400 or so high-powered delegates who signed up for the Ireland Day summit.

They included Mr O'Brien, Tony O'Reilly Jnr of Providence Resources; Duncan Niederauer; Chris O'Leary, of General Mills; Melanie Hughes, of Gilt Group; Barry O'Leary from the IDA, and Deirdre Somers of the Irish Stock Exchange and Paul Connolly.

Mr Hyland didn't clear the guest list with the Taoiseach's people in advance, as perhaps he felt there was no need. There was no formal placement of attendees on the podium and guests stood where they liked, except for Mr Hyland who, as the creator of Ireland Day summit, took up position beside the Taoiseach.

The Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton, didn't feature on Hyland's guest list. The Minister was only available to attend the Ireland Day conference from 11am when she participated in a panel discussion, according to Mr Hyland's spokesman.

A spokesman for Mr Kenny said: "The Taoiseach was first invited to ring the bell in the New York Stock Exchange by the CEO of the NYSE in May of last year. That invitation was reiterated by the NYSE earlier this year and accepted by the Taoiseach. The matter of who would be on the balcony for the bell-ringing ceremony was decided by the event organisers. The Taoiseach had no involvement in, or knowledge of the matter."

The spokesman said the Taoiseach was not aware of the guest list in advance, and the "event organisers" looked after the invitations. Asked if the Taoiseach was aware that the occasion would be used to promote a private conference, the spokesman said: "The two events were separate. The Taoiseach rang the bell on the invitation of the NYSE."

A spokesman for Mr Hyland said: "We were honoured that the Taoiseach accepted the invitation to open the market on Ireland Day in a ceremony watched by over 150 million viewers worldwide -- a hugely positive event for our country in these times."

As Fianna Fail tried to make political capital, Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore came to Mr Kenny's aide in Brussels. There was no comparison to be drawn between the Taoiseach's appearance with Mr O'Brien and the Mahon report, he said. "It's not comparable. You can't always choose who's in the photograph."

To onlookers during the St Patrick's Day celebrations, however, Mr Kenny didn't seem too embarrassed about Mr O'Brien's presence on the podium. And the Taoiseach seemed at ease when their paths crossed at other St Patrick's Day functions. One photograph taken at an American Ireland fund dinner shows Mr O'Brien looking on amiably as Nancy Pelosi, the Democrat minority leader of the US House of Representatives, chats with the Taoiseach.

But this is not the first time that Mr O'Brien shared a space with Mr Kenny since the Moriarty tribunal report was published. Mr O'Brien was invited by the Government to attend the global economic forum at Dublin Castle in November. Barry Maloney, a former CEO of Esat (and a former friend of O'Brien's), pulled out in protest at the telecoms tycoon's presence at the forum, given the criticisms contained in the Moriarty report.

Nor did the invitation please Fine Gael's government partners, according to several Labour politicians, who described their unease to this newspaper at the time.

So it was last week, when Mr Calleary raised the spectre of Mr O'Brien and Fine Gael once again on Prime Time. Asked if he was happy to see Mr O'Brien on the same platform as the Taoiseach, Mr Rabbitte replied: "I will tell you one thing; after what I have seen in the last three years, it would be difficult to walk down Wall Street without fraternising with people who have a great deal to answer for."

Pressed again, he said there were "serious questions" over Mr O'Brien's conduct at that time but he had "no worries" about the "signals" such an image might send out. He believes -- and no one disputes -- that Mr Kenny is an honest politician.

But Mr Kenny is not just the face of Fine Gael. He is also the face of the Coalition Government. Whatever the past connections between O'Brien and Fine Gael, putting the "Government" beside a businessman criticised in a tribunal commissioned by the Oireachtas is poor product placement.

It's not the kind of branding the Labour Party is likely to be too happy about either.

Sunday Independent