Denis O’Brien Might Try To Silence The Government, But He Won’t Silence Me

Denis O'Brien Catherine Murphy TDThere’s a concept known as “Parliamentary Privilege“, used in both the British and Irish Houses of Parliament, which grants members of both houses legal immunity and protection against civil or criminal liability for actions done or statements made in the course of their legislative duties. It allows members to speak freely during ordinary parliamentary proceedings without fear of legal action on the grounds of slander or contempt of court.

This allows Members to raise questions or debate issues which could slander an individual, interfere with an ongoing court case or threaten to reveal state secrets, and plays a perfectly useful and legitimate purpose in a democracy, when legislators are elected in order to govern in the best interests of the electorate who chose them.

However, Irish billionaire Mr. Denis O’Brien would have you think otherwise. In fact, his opinion on the matter is so strong that he has actually gone to court and successfully sought an injunction to gag the Irish press from reporting what an elected Irish parliamentarian said during a session of the Dáil about Mr. O’Brien.

Unlike corrupt dictatorships such as Russia, Azerbaijan or Syria, for example, Ireland’s press supposedly enjoy the legal right to print, publish or broadcast a story without the molestation of the Irish government, or anyone else for that matter, especially if it simply reprinting what was said during a session of the Oireachtas.

What has Mr. O’Brien so scared? Well, it’s really very simple. Ms Catherine Murphy TD, is an Independent TD for Kildare North. She outlined a series of revelations in the Dáil on May 28th, which concerned alleged preferential treatment given to Mr. O’Brien by IBRC, formerly Anglo Irish Bank.

The claims emerged as Ms Murphy introduced a bill to permit the Comptroller and Auditor General to investigate the sale of Siteserv to Mr O’Brien and other IBRC transactions.

Her speech to the members of the Dáil was as follows;

“This bill extends the functions and powers, or seeks to extend the functions and powers of the C & AG [Comptroller and Auditor General] to cover IBRC. It was the Taoiseach that first suggested that the C & AG review the Siteserv sale’s process and it was then pointed out to him that IBRC does not come within his remit.”

“With this Bill, I’m attempting to address that problem by broadening the remit of the C & AG. The reason I’m anticipating the need to involve the C & AG, if not a full Commission of Investigation, which may well be a better option, is because I believe the Government have got this badly wrong, not least because most of the key players in the Siteserv saga have links with KPMG and its eventual purchaser and vice versa, is a web of connections and conflicts, that requires outside eyes to unravel.

I have no doubt that the special liquidator [Kieran Wallace] is more than capable of doing such a review but his direct involvement in the sale process, and his relationship with the eventual purchaser of Siteserv, and his current actions in the High Court, in supporting Mr O’Brien versus RTE, place him in a position where there is, at the very least, a perceived conflict of interest, if not an actual conflict of interest.

The review is not confined to Siteserv but it is the transaction that prompted a review. I would worry about the transactions that have been excluded from the review, given that what we now know, that in the final months before prom night, the relationship between the department and IBRC had completely broken down.

“If deals were being done without the knowledge or input of the minister then we need to know what they were. We are now aware for example that the former CEO of IBRC made verbal agreements with Denis O’Brien to allow him to extend the terms of his already expired loans.

We also know that the verbal agreement was never escalated to the credit committee for approval. I’m led to believe, and I would welcome the minister clarifying, the rates applicable at this time, that the extension also attracted some extremely favourable interest terms.

I understand that Mr O’Brien was enjoying a rate of around 1.25%, when IBRC, and arguably, when IBRC could, and arguably should have been charging 7.5%. We are talking about outstanding sums here that are upwards of €500 million. The interest rate applied is not an insignificant issue for the public interest.

We also know that Denis O’Brien felt confident enough, in his dealings with IBRC that he could write to Kieran Wallace, as the special liquidator and demand that the same favourable terms extended to him by way of a verbal agreement could be continued.

We now have Kieran Wallace, who’s been appointed by the Government to conduct a review into the IBRC review, actually joining with IBRC and Denis O’Brien in the High Court and seeking to injunct the information I’ve outlined from coming into the public domain – surely that alone represents a conflict.

In FOI documents released to me, the minister, his officials and the Central Bank and even the Troika acknowledge that IBRC, the former Anglo Irish Bank, is no ordinary bank and there’s a significant public interest because the bank had been fully nationalised and was in wind-down mode.

They all accept that this is the people’s money that we’re dealing with and that there can be no dispute regarding the public interest in this. The same FOI materials detail incidences where the minister can specifically intervene, and issue an ministerial order that material matters have significant interest. Included in these material matters are incidences that are outside the ordinary course of business.

I would argue that what I’ve outlined out here regarding verbal deals, extensions, etc, are outside the normal course of business and I would ask the minister to exercise his right to intervene in the current proceedings and defend the public interest.

“I’ve a motion on the order papers, signed by the majority of the Opposition – 45 members have signed it and more are welcome to – calling for a debate into the proposed review. When I tried to raise it on the order of business, I was silenced and I was told to take it up with my Whip. I am the Whip of the Technical Group and I did raise it at the weekly Whip’s meeting.

The Government Chief Whip told me that they would not be altering the KPMG review, the Government would not be giving time to debate this issue and suggested that we use Private Members’ time.

It’s not just an Opposition issue, minister. This is an issue for all in this house. It’s an issue of serious public concern where there is public money involved and I know, if you got your hands on maybe an extra €20 million, I don’t think you’d have to think too hard on how to spend that money. I urge the Government to reconsider this and give the Bill and the motion the time they deserve. I believe this is in the public interest. Thank you.”

Mr. O’Brien, who is said to be worth about €7bn, is considered Ireland’s richest man with widespread interests, including mobile phones, oil and aircraft leasing. He lives in Malta for tax purposes. He had argued that even the rich and powerful had a right to privacy and that Murphy’s remarks were “materially inaccurate”, based on stolen information and made in breach of an earlier injunction he had got against RTÉ banning it from reporting details of his banking arrangements.

RTÉ, which had been independently investigating the telecoms and media tycoon, consulted its lawyers and did not broadcast details of Murphy’s speech as it feared they could have been in breach of the O’Brien injunction granted 10 days previous. It was imposed despite RTÉ contending that press freedom, public interest and legitimate journalistic inquiry should be paramount.

The Irish Times initially reported the remarks online but then removed its article following a letter from O’Brien’s lawyers.

Even the former Attorney General, Michael McDowell, has said it is “absurd” to tell media outlets they can’t report on the speech given by independent TD Catherine Murphy in the Dáil .

“We now also have the ridiculous situation in which O’Brien’s spokesman uses the airwaves to condemn Deputy Murphy for ‘peddling lies’ in the Dáil but listeners are not told what her allegation is,” said McDowell.

It should also be noted that Denis O’Brien is the major shareholder in Ireland’s Independent News and Media Group, which owns The Irish Independent newspaper. It also publishes the Irish Daily Star, the Sunday Independent, the Sunday World, Dublin’s Evening Herald and a raft of other regional titles north and south of the border.

The Irish Independent, which is controlled by Mr. O’Brien, is Ireland’s best-selling daily newspaper. They are quoted as saying that “Mr O’Brien successfully stopped RTÉ from broadcasting the details which Ms Murphy raised in the Dáil”.

Mr. O’Brien is big in radio too, through his Communicorp group which owns two major national stations, Newstalk and Today FM, plus three regional stations.

So, the owner of the large majority of Ireland’s media outlets is using an injunction to prevent reports on his affairs appearing in the rest of the media he doesn’t control. Sounds like something one would expect from the likes of Vladimir Putin!

The fear he wields through his high priced lawyers has now prevented the Irish media from reporting even privileged Dáil speech, and it shows how dangerous the extent of the O’Brien empire is for Irish media and society in general. Mr O’Brien may justifiably claim a right to reputation, but the right of the press to report parliamentary proceedings is paramount in a functioning democracy.

I’m really beginning to think that O’Brien is Ireland’s equivalent to a dictator. His latest bid to gag the rest of the Irish media he doesn’t already own is something you might expect from the likes of Putin, Assad or China’s Xi Jinping.

This is Ireland for fuck sake. The country that showed the world only a fortnight ago that we stand for equality. That equality also extends to a free press and the freedom of speech!

Clearly, there are questions to ask about the press freedom implications due to Ireland’s lack of media plurality and diversity. Given that this is hosted outside the Irish Republic, written by someone outside of Ireland, I’m going to enjoy the letter his lawyers send to me. I think I’ll file it under “garbage” 😉