An inquiry into Siteserv will justify Independent TD’s efforts

There’s a limit to what a slightly OCD independent member of the Oireachtas can do on this, writes Alison O’ Connor

Independent deputy Catherine Murphy is a very good TD. She works hard, battles on behalf of her constituents and manages, despite being a one woman band, to highlight matters that are of important national interest.

This week she made a breakthrough on an issue she has been plugging away at for some time —the sale of Siteserv by IBRC to businessman Denis O’Brien’s firm Millington at a loss of €105m to the taxpayer.

But the Kildare North TD realises her own limitations as a deputy without the benefits of resources that would come from being in a parliamentary party, or the journalistic expertise required to investigate the interesting tale of IBRC’s sale of Siteserv. “There’s a limit to what a slightly OCD independent member of the Oireachtas can do on this,” Deputy Murphy told the Journal.ie.

DISCOVER MORE CONTENT LIKE THIS

This, as she rightly pointed out is a “web” that needs some serious untangling. She believes there is a big role for the media in untangling that web and making it accessible to the public.

This is further evidence of the good sense regularly displayed by Deputy Murphy. Isn’t this sort of investigation exactly what journalists should be doing, the most basic job of a properly functioning media?

There are more than the basics of the story available and just this week Deputy Murphy revealed some disquieting details on the deal, which outline the concerns of Department of Finance officials which she discovered through a Freedom of Information request.

But hang on a minute, there is a hitch, a significant one. This story involves Denis O’Brien. I think back to the last time I wrote a column on the man who owns so much of the Irish media and remember colleagues coming up to me afterwards telling me I had been “very brave”.

In truth I hadn’t felt particularly brave and I knew that the legal team of the newspaper involved would have been all over anything written about Mr O’Brien with a fine tooth comb.

My contribution followed revelations of a recording of a 2004 telephone conversation between former Fine Gael TD Michael Lowry and a Co Tyrone land agent Kevin Phelan.

It involved a stg250,000 payment and issues of tax compliance. The Moriarty Tribunal had inquired into a number of land transactions including the purchase of the Doncaster Rovers site, set up by Mr Phelan, regarding the dealings and connections between Mr Lowry and Mr O’Brien.

As we know Mr O’Brien has consistently maintained that the tribunal was unfair and biased against him, and that its findings are based on opinion rather than fact.

DISCOVER MORE CONTENT LIKE THIS

I wondered then why this story had not been covered more extensively in the Irish media, although this newspaper has certainly devoted many column inches to it. Was there a “chilling “ effect concerning controversial issues linked to Mr O’Brien who owns a 29.9% share in INM and whose company Communicorp currently controls Today FM, Newstalk, Spin 103.8 and 98FM and has a substantial interest in Spin South West and Phantom FM.

I still wonder about that now. It is my experience that it remains a source of much discussion among journalists when discussing the media in Ireland and the concentration of ownership that exists. Denis O’Brien is a man who is a hugely successful businessman. He has had seriously impressive international success. He also has a track record of being involved in charity work which has made a real difference to the lives of people here and abroad.

But he is also a billionaire who has threatened to sue around 20 Irish journalists and doesn’t just like to sue media organisations but also journalists personally.

Siteserv is the company that won the State contract to install water meters for Irish Water and questions over its sale have been knocking around for a long time now. You see it mentioned on social media regularly by those who protest at being made to pay for water and believe that the Government has been refusing to look into it because it has not suited them. Just because they are paranoid does not mean these people are wrong in terms of this being something that justifies investigation.

There are also concerns that this is not the only deal of this financial magnitude involving IBRC where there might be question marks over whether anything like the best deal was done for the taxpayer.

Politically the way this issue has taken off this week has given a timely reprieve to Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, who has performed strongly in the Dáil in his questioning of the Taoiseach, just as he faces into the party’s ard fheis this weekend.

The Government is certainly in difficulty over this; with the Minister for Finance Michael Noonan appearing to attempt to shut the controversy down over time, before then acknowledging there were concerns, and then the Taoiseach saying incredibly that he had not read the front page story in the Sunday Times last Sunday concerning the information contained in the Freedom of Information request.

He then invokes the Comptroller and Auditor General, the public spending watchdog, saying it would examine the transaction; except it does not have the remit to do so. He stretches both credibility and credulity with his responses.

Yet the former leader of Fine Gael and former IBRC chairman Alan Dukes is emphatic in stating that everything concerning the deal was above board. In a strongly worded statement he categorically rejected suggestions there was any impropriety involved in the sale. All aspects of the sale were considered in detail by the board of the bank and the decision made was considered to be the best course of action available, in the interests of the shareholder and of the State, he said.

“At the conclusion of that discussion, the minister professed himself satisfied with the bank’s reasoning and decisions,” said a statement from Dukes.

Earlier this year Siteserv issued a statement saying it was disappointed that Catherine Murphy continued to make “repeated unfounded public accusations” and that the company had publically denied these accusations in 2012. “It is extremely disturbing that Deputy Murphy continues to repeatedly try and discredit the reputation of Siteserv Holdings Limited. Any attempt to continually portray the transaction in such a negative manner is completely without foundation and is purely agenda-driven.”

The bottom line here is that we have a number of differing views and people on all sides expressing themselves robustly on the strength of their own position.

The chairman of the PAC John McGuinness says that an independent inquiry is needed. So it’s looking as if Catherine Murphy won’t be on her own in this any longer. She’s still right though that the media has a valuable role to play in uncovering and analysing further details relating to Siteserv and other deals over €100m.

Indeed Denis O’Brien, who we know gets weary from the cynicism and suspicion he gets in his native land, might be thrilled with an investigation that could vindicate his position.

Hopefully though our investigative journalists, and their employers, won’t feel they need to be too “brave” to dig as deep as they can do.

DISCOVER MORE CONTENT LIKE THIS

More in this section