Indo chiefs ‘threatened Cabinet with bad press’

FORMER Taoiseach John Bruton has claimed Independent Newspapers threatened in September 1996 to give the Rainbow Coalition bad publicity if the Fine Gael-led Government did not address grievances affecting the group’s interests.

The Moriarty Tribunal heard yesterday that on the day of the general election in June 1997, the Irish Independent newspaper published a front-page editorial, Payback Time, which urged the electorate not to vote for the outgoing Government.

In a statement to the tribunal, businessman Tony O’Reilly, who headed the newspaper group, recalled how senior Independent executives met Mr Bruton’s senior programme manager Sean Donlon on September 4, 1996.

Mr Donlon is expected to tell the tribunal he got the impression during a fraught meeting that the Independent representatives regarded former Communications Minister Michael Lowry as persona non grata.

Independent executives Liam Healy and Brendan Hopkins had hinted their group would take litigation against the Government or the State to protect its corporate interests, according to Mr O’Reilly’s statement.

The matter arose over the perceived failure of the Government to take action against pirate TV deflector operators when the Independent’s interest was being affected by the alleged failure to uphold the law. Mr O’Reilly reported his executives hinting legal action would be taken and referred to the Government losing the Independent as “friends”.

Rossa Fanning BL, for Mr Bruton, suggested Mr O’Reilly’s reference to the Government losing friends over litigation was disingenuous. Mr Bruton rejected Mr O’Reilly’s interpretation and said he felt the reference could not be confined solely to litigation. If people sued the Government it did not imply they had an adverse opinion as to their friendship with the parties composing the Government, he said.

At a private West Cork meeting in July 1996, Mr O’Reilly expressed “a certain unhappiness” to Mr Bruton because Denis O’Brien’s consortium had secured the second mobile phone licence.

According to Mr Bruton, Mr O’Reilly expressed disappointment with the Government on four issues, chief among them being the TV deflector problem.

But Mr O’Reilly said it was “completely untrue” he told Mr Bruton he was extremely disappointed the consortium to which Independent Newspapers was connected had failed to win the GSM licence.

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