Mick Clifford: Paddy Cosgrave needs to get a hold of himself

The farrago, at Cosgrave's international web summit in Lisbon this week, suggests something is up
Mick Clifford: Paddy Cosgrave needs to get a hold of himself

Paddy Cosgrave on centre stage during the opening night of Web Summit 2021 at the Altice Arena in Lisbon, Portugal. Picture: Eóin Noonan/Web Summit via Sportsfile

What’s eating entrepreneur Paddy Cosgrave? The farrago, at his international web summit in Lisbon this week, suggests something is up.

Paddy must be living the dream. He’s a healthy, intelligent, wealthy young man with a young family and a thriving business. He could have walked straight out of the Talking Heads song, ‘Once In A Lifetime’ — “And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife, and you may ask yourself, ‘well, how did I get here?’”

Paddy got there using his loaf and the kind of cojones known only to risk-takers in business. He started up a web summit and created an annual gathering that is now not to be missed for the world’s techies. The holding company, of which he is the majority shareholder, had revenues of €47.9m in 2019 and made a gross profit of €27.7m. There is no record of Paddy taking a dividend that year, but it’s an indication of how successful he has been.

The summit started life in Dublin but grew so big that it relocated to Lisbon, where this year’s event opened last Monday. On the opening night, the guest of honour was Frances Haugen, the Facebook whistleblower, who has shown herself to be a brave and public-spirited individual.

Just before she came on stage, Paddy addressed the full auditorium of techies and Portuguese government personnel. He told them about an organisation called Whistleblower Aid (WA) which he said had done great things, including playing “a seminal role in the evidence that led to the downfall of Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein and so much more”. Then, WA, which Paddy says was co-founded by John Tighe, opened a European office in Dublin and it hit the ground running.

'Longest criminal investigation'

His voice rising toward a dramatic climax, Paddy related to the audience that, in Dublin, WA hooked up with entrepreneur Chay Bowes who “had evidence of potential corruption by Ireland’s then prime minister, Leo Varadkar”. This, he went on, “triggered the longest criminal investigation into a senior political figure in Ireland in decades”.

The big screen in the Lisbon auditorium was filled with an image of the front page of Village magazine, edited by Michael Smith, which broke the Varadkar story. ‘Leo, the lawbreaker’ ran the headline. Leo doesn’t look his best in the large photo.

Let’s stop here to contemplate the collective psyche of the gathering of thousands of techies and politicians from around the world watching this unfold. An educated guess might suggest puzzlement, even confusion, reigning. Or, to use an acronym favoured on social media, perhaps a question. “WTF is going on?”; “Weinstein, Epstein, I know, who is this Varadkar person?”; “How did we get here?”

It got better. “I’d like to ask John, Chay, and Michael to come on stage,” says Paddy. “What you have done, Chay, in particular, has taken incredible courage.” By now, there was a ripple of clapping, as if some sensed this was the point where it was expected of them, but Paddy wasn’t done. “And I’d like to ask everybody to give a huge round of applause for what they have achieved.”

The three men ambled on stage, like damaged war veterans from a forgotten conflict. They threw arms around each other and waved to the confused fans who had got the message and began clapping respectfully, presumably hoping against hope that this would all be over soon.

Credit where it is due. Michael Smith published a great scoop about Varadkar passing a confidential document to his mate. Personally, it raised the ugly green head of my inner Gore Vidal. The American writer once said: “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.” That’s how I feel about another journalist getting a big scoop, so full marks to Smith.

Chay Bowes did a public service by providing the evidence he had of Varadkar’s actions. He deserves credit for that, but courage? Whistleblowers require courage to stand up to the hierarchy in their organisation and accept the consequences of stepping forward. Mr Bowes is an entrepreneur for whom the consequences were falling out with Varadkar’s mate. Close, but no cigar.

In a functioning democracy, Varadkar would have resigned for abusing his position. In a functioning democracy, that wouldn’t necessarily be the end of his time in frontline politics. He was stupid rather than corrupt and he may have broken the law but there was no personal gain in it for him.

To portray him as some form of latter-day Charlie Haughey is wrong. To leave open the possibility to an uninformed audience that whatever he did could be bracketed in notoriety with the activities of Weinstein and Epstein is contemptible.

To present the whole farrago as an introduction to Ms Haugen, a genuine, courageous whistleblower, was arguably insulting to her.

Wherefore Paddy? There is a growing tradition of techie millionaires, who get hugely wealthy relatively young, going off reservation. Peter Thiel, Elon Musk, and poor old John McAfee are obvious examples. Paddy isn’t in their league but he might need to get a hold of himself.

He appears to have a genuine interest in social justice and is obviously highly politically aware. In another lifetime, one such as him would have entered politics or perhaps established a non-governmental organisation to pursue equality in society.

That involves hard graft and commitment and to some of today’s hotshots may lack the fireworks of exposing scandal and basking in the glow of heroic endeavour. So instead, Paddy takes to Twitter where he lambasts the country as irredeemably corrupt, run by and for a small junta of cronies.

His ire is particularly focused on the privately educated milieu from which he himself was sprung and the wealthy in whose class he now resides.

If you didn’t know better, you’d think there was an element of self-loathing involved.

Those who find his contribution politically advantageous applaud from a safe distance. Once upon a time, Gemma O’Doherty held a similar role in the public square before she took a sharp turn to the right. There is no reason in the world to believe that Paddy would follow her but you have to wonder what exactly he will do next.

Hopefully, he will use his considerable intellect and resources in a manner that will leave a positive legacy rather than a trail of egotistical anger.

Maybe he should give the old Talking Heads song a spin. “You may ask yourself, what is that beautiful house? You may ask yourself where does that highway lead to? You may ask yourself, am I right, am I wrong? You may say to yourself, my God, what have I done?” Take it handy.

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