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

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 issued.

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 straightforward.

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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