Tuesday - Sep 30, 2014

Denis O’Brien: a complicated career and dubious ethics


Denis O’Brien is one of Ireland’s leading entrepreneurs with investments in international telecoms, radio, media, property, aircraft leasing, golf and other leisure interests. He founded the Esat Telecom Group plc and built it throughout the 1990s until its sale to British Telecom plc for €2.4 billion. He became a Portuguese resident and avoided £55m in taxes otherwise due. He also founded Communicorp Group which he owns outright to manage a portfolio of media and broadcasting-related companies in Ireland and eight other European countries. These include 98FM, Newstalk, Today FM, Highland Radio, Spin 1038 and Spin South West. He has a €600m stake (around 22%) in INM which owns the Evening Herald, Irish Independent, Sunday Independent, Sunday World and the Irish Daily Star, as well as 14 regional titles, two free newspapers, and a magazine.

He founded Digicel in 2001 when the company launched a GSM cellular phone service in the Caribbean. Digicel has extended its operations to 32 markets with over 11 million subscribers in the Caribbean, Central America and Pacific regions. In the year to March 2011, revenues at Digicel were up 27% to $2.23bn. In 2010 O’Brien netted $693 million from the sale of his Digicel Pacific Limited (DPL) business to the Digicel group.

In 2005, O’Brien became Deputy Governor of the revered Bank of Ireland. Simultaneously, he moved his residence from Portugal to Malta, for tax avoidance reasons. He resigned from the position of Deputy Governor Bank of Ireland, and also as a member of the Bank’s ‘court’, in 2006. O’Brien also resigned from the Norkom Group and from the UCD Smurfit School of Business. O’Brien is a member of the Bilderberg group.

O’Brien part-funded the wages of Irish soccer manager, Giovanni Trapattoni. He is Chairman of the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Judging Panel, having previously been a recipient of the award. In 2010, he was named Goodwill Ambassador for the city of Port-au-Prince in recognition of his efforts to rebuild Haiti and attract foreign direct investment. The Guardian recently ran a piece headlined “How an Irish telecoms tycoon became earthquake-devastated Haiti’s only hope of salvation”, which detailed how Port au Prince’s iconic Iron Market will shortly reopen “all down to Denis O’Brien”.

He is the Chairman and Co-Founder of Frontline, the International Foundation for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders which “works to ensure that the standards set out in the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, adopted in 1998, are known, respected and adhered to worldwide”.

In 2000, Denis O’Brien established The Iris O’Brien Foundation, named after his mother, to identify and assist projects in Ireland and internationally which aim to alleviate disadvantaged communities. The foundation has broad aims, including promoting human rights, helping people affected by disasters, helping people with a mental or physical handicap, advancing education and supporting the arts. The foundation has spent nearly €15.4m on charitable works.

O’Brien has links with Unicef, the Special Olympics, and Camara, which sends computers to developing countries. He has also funded multicultural awards and awards run by Social Entrepreneurs Ireland. He serves on the US Board of Concern Worldwide. He once donated £250,000 he had been awarded in libel damages to Amnesty International for which he sometimes hosts (not always uncontroversial) lunches. He was Chairman of the 2003 Special Olympics World Summer Games when the games were held in Ireland. In 2011, he provided money for the Presidential campaign of Mary Davis who had been CEO of the Special Olympics at that time.

He has an honorary doctorate from UCD and is a mate of former US President, Bill Clinton. Indeed, he flew him to the recent Dublin Castle beano in his jet, and later paid the tab for a late-nighter in the Unicorn restaurant with Clinton, the strangely ever-present Séamus Heaney and 22 others. If you mention your charitable cause to Denis O’ Brien he is likely to give you his personal phone number. In short he is a dynamic and successful businessman and a hero to charities. Presumably on the back of this, he was a high-profile guest at events for Queen Elizabeth II, with whom he was oft-photographed earlier this year and at the two Irish Global Economic Forum conferences, whose invitees were suggested by the Department of Foreign Affairs (though this did not stop some protestations from Éamon Gilmore’s Labour Party), held in the last year or so.

Last March, a judicial tribunal found that a former minister for communications, Michael Lowry, “secured the winning” of the 1995 mobile phone licence competition for Denis O’Brien’s Esat Digifone. The tribunal also found that O’Brien made two payments to Lowry, in 1996 and 1999, totalling approximately £500,000, and supported a loan of Stg£420,000 given to Lowry in 1999. In his 2,348-page report, Mr Justice Michael Moriarty found that the payments from O’Brien were “demonstrably referable to the acts and conduct of Mr Lowry” during the licence process, acts which benefited Esat Digifone. In effect O’Brien was trading in influence or ‘legal corruption’.

His former mate, Barry Maloney, absented himself from the recent Irish Global Economic Forum, writing
to the Taoiseach and Tánaiste informing them that he could not attend the event because Mr O’Brien would be a participant, despite the criticisms of him made in the final report from the Moriarty Tribunal. Maloney had given evidence to the tribunal that in 1996 he had a discussion while jogging with O’Brien concerning payments that Maloney, as chief executive of Esat Digifone, was obliged to sanction. O’Brien remarked that he himself had to make two payments of £100,000, one of which was to then Fine Gael minister, now Independent TD, Michael Lowry. This, he said, was a joke.

What was not a joke, however, was the termination of Sam Smyth’s contract with O’Brien-owned
Today FM. Smyth was the best-informed commentator on the Moriarty Tribunal and drew legal proceedings from both Lowry and O’Brien for his troubles.

The point, for these purposes, about Denis O’Brien is that, if you believe that not paying taxes and not paying money to Ministers to get favourable decisions on multi-billion-Euro deals, is unethical, then much of his money is not morally his. It is too easy to garner plaudits for philanthropy on the back of donations of cash, some of which is not ethically yours to give. This country has been brought to its knees by a treasonous golden business circle of which O’Brien is a member. But try telling that to the people who send out invitations on behalf of Enda Kenny, the Taoiseach.

4 comments
  1. Con O'Rourke

    11 January, 2012 at 6:16 pm

    The very vicious satire site irishc***s.wordpress.com are a lot more forthright about Denis’ shady dealing. It is a damning endictment of the irish media that only Internet sources discuss it.

  2. Liam clear

    4 April, 2012 at 10:24 am

    Brilliant article that gives a great background to Denis o Brien.
    When he headed to Portugal with the tax owed [morally] to Ireland inc he lost all credibility and the nail in the coffin was his dealing with Lowry. A man only has his reputation when he meets his maker and o briens pockets will be empty.

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  4. Cant say

    16 May, 2014 at 7:01 pm

    Denis obrian isnt as well of as he seems he has a house in portugal and malta big whoop but he has make some stupid decisions in my opinion he bought a house in monte de Quinta resort where the houses are worth at least 3 million now there only 750000 but he has bought many other property’s around the algarve suggesting he has made many losses including losses in Malta and Jamaica he may be rich but the only thing keeping him afloat is his business not him

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