Denis O’Brien and proximity

Nobody should be admired for their philanthropy if they are tax exiles

By Fergus Finlay

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

HERE’S my honest answer to a couple of tricky questions.

Would I be happy to shake Denis O’Brien’s hand? Yes I would.

Would I be happy to be photographed with him (in the unlikely event
that he had any interest in being photographed with me)? Yes I would.

I do of course realise that these answers won’t make me popular with
my right-on friends. And there’ll be some people for whom the
revelation that I like a lot about Denis O’Brien will confirm their
worst suspicions. Sorry about that, but it’s the truth.

Does that mean that I agree with everything he’s ever done? No it doesn’t.

And I’ve told him. I’ve had several conversations with him over the
years, and in one of them, long before the Moriarty Tribunal reported,
I told him that I thought his status as a tax exile was entirely wrong
and unacceptable.

I’ve spoken to him once since the Tribunal published its report, and
told him unequivocally that I accepted the findings Judge Moriarty had

He made it equally clear that he didn’t! (In the interests of honesty,
maybe I should add that I wasn’t avoiding conversation since the
Tribunal reported. It just hadn’t arisen.) I don’t know if many of
Denis O’Brien’s critics have spelled out their reservations in
face-to-face ways. And I certainly don’t want to convey the impression
that Denis O’Brien consults me, or asks me for advice. I can’t even
claim to know him particularly well, though I’ve always (apart from
one occasion when we had a fierce row) found him likeable and very

My dealings with him have been in connection with some of the things
he does that people don’t know a lot about. Several times I’ve
contacted him to thank him for investments he has made in causes I
believe in and support. And they are investments (as opposed to
gifts), because I’ve come to recognise that he supports things that he
believes are good ideas — the kind of good ideas that often find it
very difficult to attract funding.

In other words, he doesn’t give for the sake of giving. He gives for
what I imagine are the same reasons he makes business investments — to
get results. But his giving, at least in my experience, is underpinned
by an open decency and generosity. After he has given, he doesn’t
criticise failure, although he does expect effort. I know a lot of
people — here in Ireland and in many other parts of the world — who
have good reasons to be grateful that he is the way he is. He has
saved a few lives, and transformed many more. And I’m certainly not
going to deny any of that.

Apart from what I read in the papers, I know nothing about Denis
O’Brien the businessman. We all know, I suppose, that he’s the richest
man in Ireland, and he’s clearly a visionary and a tough dealer when
it comes to business. The tragedy for him, perhaps, at least in terms
of his reputation, is that his fortune is founded on a deal that a
tribunal of enquiry has found to be dodgy. He may deny it, but that’s
a fact. He has built that fortune into something massive, and he has
invested the original profit many times over in his own country. But
he is stuck with Moriarty’s findings about its essential origins.

And lest there be any doubt, the Tribunal found that Michael Lowry had
received vast amounts of money from Denis O’Brien, directly or
indirectly, and that he (Lowry) had done everything he could to ensure
that the second mobile phone licence went to Denis O’Brien’s company.
In the course of their extraordinarily in-depth enquiries, the
Tribunal went down a large number of money trails, and found in the
end that the money trail in every case contradicted the evidence of
both men.

In Lowry, of course, the Tribunal was dealing with someone who had
already been heavily criticised by the McCracken Tribunal. On page 510
of the Moriarty report Lowry is described as being “profoundly
corrupt” in his dealings with Ben Dunne. Oddly, no such description is
applied to Denis O’Brien. You can search the Moriarty Tribunal report
from start to finish and you won’t find him being described as either
corrupt or untruthful — although his evidence is rejected by the
Tribunal whenever it conflicts with the paper trail.

So maybe it’s the case that there are two Denis O’Briens. Nobody
should expect to be loved for their philanthropy if they’re also a tax
exile. In fact in his case the loss of moral authority that went
hand-in-hand with that choice was a foolish decision, because he has
earned many multiples of the tax he saved by living abroad.

But I don’t know that he does, in fact, seek to be loved and admired
in return for giving. He just makes a lot of money, and gives away a
lot of money, with no strings attached that I’ve ever noticed.

I wouldn’t want there to be any misunderstanding about where I stand
on some of the issues of principle involved in all this. The
relationship between politics and business in Ireland has always been
deeply unhealthy. That relationship, even where it hasn’t been based
on acts of corruption, has nevertheless corrupted politics. Government
is often about protecting the common good against vested interests. It
cannot do that when it is beholden, as it too often has been, to those
same vested interests.

THERE are separate, and in some ways, deeper issues that arise from
the dilemma posed by someone exposed as corrupt who still holds a
democratic mandate. But sometimes government ministers have to make an
overt stand on these issues.

And sometimes businessmen, even very rich ones, have to understand
this. It’s not a great idea for any politician or political party to
allow the impression to be created that their personal relationships
with rich people are more important than the findings of fact of a
judge appointed by the Oireachtas. Mind you, I still think it’s better
to be seen together in a photograph than some of the
behind-closed-doors stuff it takes a tribunal to uncover! And a
meaningful way has to be found to deal with very specific findings
against TDs and other public representatives.

We don’t have impeachment in our Constitution, except for the
president. But judges can be removed from office by resolution, on the
grounds of stated misbehaviour. Why not TDs? There is another
fundamental issue where Denis O’Brien is concerned — the issue of
media ownership. If he was my best friend, I would still be utterly
opposed to the idea that any one individual should have a monopoly of
media ownership in Ireland. Ultimately, (it’s not the sort of thing
that happens overnight), the concentration of media ownership is a
recipe for the corruption — in fact the destruction — of the
democratic process.

This has nothing to do with the personality, it’s about the principle.
Government of the people, by the people, for the people cannot survive
that sort of power being held by one person — no matter who it is.

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