Thursday 23 January 2020

Eoghan Harris: Fine Gael must stop its blustering on Denis O'Brien

Enda Kenny has been making eyes at Denis O'Brien. That's the public perception. That is why the Taoiseach's high polls and buttery boosting from his fair-weather media friends will eventually melt away unless he distances himself from Denis O'Brien and blocks the latter's ambition to become, in Joan Burton's phrase, an Irish Berlusconi.

O'Brien is wealthy beyond belief. But his fortune is founded on the €317m he made from the moral morass drained by the Moriarty tribunal. He does not pay tax in Ireland on the bulk of his substantial income. He is not fit company for the leader of Fine Gael.

We are entitled to ask whether, as a media mogul, O'Brien is already having an inhibiting influence on the media he owns. Last Friday, Brendan Howlin was interviewed at length on Newstalk's Breakfast Show. He was not asked about his Dail reservations on Denis O'Brien.

In June, Denis O'Brien will attempt to topple the O'Reilly regime in INM. If he succeeds, I will no longer be writing for the Sunday Independent. Because a recent article by O'Brien's PR man, James Morrissey, signals it will not be the same paper.

Morrissey, O'Brien's mouthpiece, writing in the Sunday Business Post, attacked Anne Harris, the editor of the Sunday Independent. Her central contribution to this paper's editorial and commercial excellence counted for nothing. It was a clear signal of Denis O'Brien's intentions.

This may not bother Enda Kenny, elevated on the ephemeral hubris of high office and high polls. But it will bother middle Ireland. The Sunday Independent stands for certain core values -- especially an iron integrity on terrorism -- which Fine Gael claims to share.

Last week, however, it was left to old Labour, to Brendan Howlin and Joan Burton, to protect freedom of speech. By contrast, the moral drift of the Democratic Left tradition, signalled by the Kevin Cardiff affair, continued apace. Eamon Gilmore dodged the bullet while he oozed equivocation about Denis O'Brien.

Fine Gael faces a watershed this weekend. So far only Lucinda Creighton has had the courage to distance herself from Denis O'Brien. By contrast, Paschal Donohoe's blustering defence, coming on top of face-saving calls for party unity, are reminiscent of Haughey-style Uno Duce, Una Voce.

Last week, Fine Gael stank of Fianna Fail Lite. And not that lite. Actually, it was an even more obnox-ious odour. Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

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Here is something for Denis O'Brien and his defenders to ponder. In 1967 I was newly married, my wife was expecting our first child, we were living in a flat, and we longed for our own home. But as a new producer in RTE's 7 Days programme I was at the bottom of the pay scale, with little hope of a house.

Ironically, I was making a programme on the late Matt Gallagher, a wealthy property speculator who was building most of the new houses in Dublin. A close supporter of Charles Haughey, Gallagher was also the founder of Taca, the secretive fund-raising wing of Fianna Fail.

Bruce Arnold, in his book Charles Haughey, His Life and Unlucky Deeds, shows how land and nationalism were closely intertwined. Gallagher's son Patrick spoke of why his father had helped Haughey to buy his palatial mansion, Abbeville: "Haughey was financed in order to create the environment which the Anglo-Irish had enjoyed and that we as people could never aspire to."

This Matt Gallagher was the formidable figure about whose borderline activities myself and reporter Patrick Gallagher (no relation) had painstakingly assembled a film portfolio in the autumn of 1967. Word got out that we had the goods.

Matt Gallagher asked Paddy and myself for a meeting in the Merrion Inn -- which he owned -- during the Holy Hour. We sat opposite him at a small table. Behind him sat a couple of the heavies who always walked in his wake.

Like most multi- millionaires, Gallagher was a charming man, a handsome-headed, rough diamond from the west of Ireland, what Thomas Davis would call "racy of the soil". Although I was on full alert, I liked him a lot.

After charming us for five minutes, Gallagher got down to business. He produced two bunches of brand new house keys and placed them on the table. "Now boys, there's a house apiece for ye if that film goes astray and ye find some other fellah to follow."

I drew a deep breath. Back in 1967, I was the kind of fanatic heart who two years later would turn down a Jacob's Award as a protest against advertising. So Matt was wasting his time with me.

But I wanted to get in before Paddy Gallagher. Because I didn't know Paddy that well. But I did know he spent all his small salary on books and paintings and hadn't a bob to his name.

Paddy beat me to it. He pushed his bottom-of-a- coke-bottle glasses high up on his snub nose, smiled and said in his high-pitched lisp: "That's vehy good of you Mr Gallagheh, but I don't weally like the kind of houses you build."

Matt Gallagher had guts too. Later he gamely came into studio to be grilled by Paddy. At one point he became so agitated he took out a second pair of spect-acles and tried to put them on over the ones he was wearing. I think the tape is still in the RTE archives. It deserves its place in TV50.

The night we turned down Matt Gallagher's offer of a house apiece I came back to the flat and told my wife. She rubbed her big belly, gave me a big hug, and we went to bed. Today she is the editor of the Sunday Independent. And she's still pure steel.

* * * * *

A last word to Fine Gael and Labour Party supporters. Ireland needs many media safety valves like the Sunday Independent. Sean Keating, the painter and socialist, once wrote: "The results of licence are awful -- but not so awful as the results of complacency, and immunity from the necessity to defend a point of view. For this reason I would promote discussions and controversies on everything under the sun, and the more the better. One never knows how much illumination can come out of a royal row until one has had it."

* * * * *

Finally, let me salute the life and work of John Arden, the distinguished English playwright, who died last week at his home in Galway. Arden's greatest play was Serjeant Musgrave's Dance, a terrifying drama about the consequences of colonialism, which I saw in the Everyman Theatre in May 1965, with John O'Shea in the lead. Ten years later I worked with Arden and his wife, Margaretta Darcy, on the Non-Stop Connolly Show, an extraordinary 24-hour epic performed at Liberty Hall. You can read all about it in Fred Johnston's A Political Passion-Play Studies, Vol 96, 2007. Although I disagreed strongly with Arden's political views, these differences are small change set beside the pure gold of his genius. My condolences to Margaretta, his family and friends.

Sunday Independent

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