30 October 2003 Edition
O'Brien's new millennium manifesto
BY ROBBIE SMYTH
Forget the 1916 Proclamation or the UN charter of Human Rights; we have a new manifesto for the millennium. It comes to us from the 1998 entrepreneur of the year, radio station owner, investor, multimillionaire tax exile, Denis O'Brien.
Ireland, according to O'Brien, is a land of 'communists' where "people are screaming like spoiled children" and "there is too much shite going on inside Ireland at the moment".
Denis has, after a couple of rocky years in terms of his relationship with the old sod, taken the time to tell us how it really is in dear old Ireland. Last week, he used one of his rare public appearances in Ireland to give us his carefully thought out analysis on not just the state of the nation but also the rights of the individual in modern society, or at least the one he thinks he should have, because his vision doesn't extend to union recognition.
Up until now, the O'Brien outbursts have been kept to his frequent appearances at the Moriarty Tribunal, to which he arrives in Dublin on a private jet straight from his luxury golfing and holiday resort in Portugal.
The Tribunal has still to rule on the propriety of O'Brien's relationship with then Public Enterprise Minister Michael Lowry in the run up to ESAT's winning of the second mobile phone licence.
There have been allegations that O'Brien paid £100,000 at the time as a success fee to Lowry and another £100,000 to another unnamed politician. O'Brien has claimed to the tribunal that this was said in jest. According to O'Brien, he and some of the other ESAT directors used to "spoof a lot... At least half of what we said was bravado".
We do know that in the months before the tenders were accepted that Lowry and O'Brien met without civil servants present, even though Lowry had been told this was undermining the transparency and legality of the bidding process.
We also know that during 1995 O'Brien attended a range of Fine Gael functions, making charitable donations that eventually ran to thousands of pounds. Maybe it was this largesse that prompted Bertie Ahern to appoint O'Brien chair of the Special Olympics in 1999, even though there were still serious issues to be addressed at the Moriarty Tribunal.
ESAT Digifone is now the 02 mobile franchise having being sold to BT for €2.3 billion netting O'Brien €290 million personally. Not bad for a company in debt and unable to find funding in 1995 for the mobile phone bid until the last weeks of the competition.
In recent weeks, O'Brien has been fighting the publication of details of the attempts by Revenue Commissioner to get €55 million in capital gains tax from O'Brien. His tax exile status meant that he was exempt from the tax. The Revenue Commissioners argued that O'Brien moved to Portugal in anticipation of the ESAT sell off.
O'Brien has argued that there is a media bias against him, but he himself owns 98FM as well as shareholdings in Newstalk, Spin and East Coast Radio. His latest venture is mobile phone services in the Carribean.
Denis, it seems, has it all and his great entrepreneurship has been justly rewarded. The term entrepreneurship must be, then, an interesting one. One definition describes it as meaning, "A person who organises, operates, and assumes the risk for a business venture". It is hard to figure out what the risk for O'Brien was in any of his business ventures, which are always into markets where there is a pre-existing demand for the product he is selling. In the case of ESAT and his radio licences, he always has a government licence that allows him access to a market while keeping out any new competitors.
ESAT never recognised any unions in the company and one wonders what O'Brien's position was on this policy given that he was such a hands on boss?
So what were O'Brien's words of wonder?
Denis O'Brien - "I have no regrets"
"A basic right within the Treaty of Rome is that people can live and work where they want to. So I make no apologies for where I live.
I can live anywhere in the world and nobody is going to stop me ... This is not China in the 1970s or 1980s. People can move and live wherever. People can invest and move their capital."
"There is too much shite going on inside Ireland at the moment."
"I think people are too negative towards politicians, government, and entrepreneurs. We are fast turning into a communist state. We are fast moving towards communist doctrine."
"People in this country should be thankful for what they have achieved in the last ten years. Instead, I come back to Ireland and people are screaming like spoiled children. We have low inflation, we have very low unemployment, increasing amounts spent on social services and there is absolute criticism of all our politicians no matter what party they are in."
"I think there is a basic right that people's tax affairs should be between themselves and the Revenue Commissioners. People leaking details is just totally unacceptable."
"I think people should really look to where we were in the middle of the 1980s and where we are today."
People should stop dwelling on the past and look to the future, says O'Brien. "That is the best way to create a more caring society, to support brave initiatives by Government or political parties that will change this country."