Irish public life: coarsened and dishonoured

Tony O'Reilly remains a legitimate target of enquire because of his track record and his vast range of corporate interests. Now a section of the Irish media establishment has coalesced to deter inquiry and reward the defenders of privilege. 


It was Eoghan Harris who queried a few weeks ago why the “obsession” on the part of Village with his boss, Tony O'Reilly. It was loyal, perhaps (even a touch obsequious?) on the part of Eoghan Harris to question our motives, however incongruous it may be for someone who himself was associated with a pamphlet some decades ago which targeted the same O'Reilly. Our motives are simple, indeed obvious.

Tony O'Reilly exercises enormous power in Irish society, through the media he controls, the corporate clout he exercises through Independent News and Media, Waterford Wedgewood, Fitzwilton and the myriad of other companies in which he is involved. Also because of the political clout he seeks to exercise.

On that score alone he would be deserving of unremitting scrutiny. But there are a few other reasons for being interested in the doings of O'Reilly. As we reported in the last issue of Village (July 2007) O'Reilly attempted in 1997 to coerce the then government led by John Bruton into acquiescing to his corporate demands on an MMDS television deflector system, the mobile phone license and other matters. He and his executives were hostile to John Bruton and also to Sean Donlon, then programme manager for John Bruton and, following a standoff between the two sides, out of the blue one of the most influential of O'Reilly's newspapers, The Irish Independent, published on its front page, the day before the June 1997 election, an editorial, headlined “payback time” calling on its readers to vote Fianna Fail and against the incumbent Rainbow government – that newspaper had never before supported Fianna Fail in an election.
This might have been a coincidence but if so an extraordinary one.

Following that election O'Reilly became involved in another major corporate venture, the take over of Eircom by Valentia, a consortium headed by him. There were good grounds for the government being opposed to the take over of Eircom by Valentia, for the manner Valentia was proposing to fund its purchase of Eircom – largely through borrowings – meant that the necessary investment in telecommunications infrastructure would not take place to the extent that was required. Instead of attempting to obstruct that deal, as the national interest seemed to require, the government facilitated the deal by an extraordinary arrangement. It guaranteed the Eircom worker's shareholding (ESOP) that it would change the tax law to ensure that in doing the deal with Valentia they were not disadvantaged tax wise. Curiously, this arrangement was not made known to the competing bidders for Eircom at the time.

Isn't that on its own reason to be curious about relations between Tony O'Reilly and this government? All the more so since in 1989 when Ray Burke was Minister for Communications with responsibility for television deflectors one of O'Reilly's companies gave him £30,000, supposedly as an election donation, and then hid the donation in the company accounts, falsely claiming a VAT rebate.

Then there was the secret meeting at the outset of the recent election campaign between Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen and Tony O'Reilly. Brian Cowen has refused to say what was discussed but coinciding with that meeting there was a remarkable shift in the nature of the coverage given to Bertie Ahern by the Sunday Independent (see story later in this issue of Village). From being questioning about Bertie Ahern's financial arrangements at the time he was Minister for Finance in 1994, the paper closed down its skepticism and wholeheartedly backed the Taoiseach, scorning others who continued to question.

Again this too could be just a coincidence but isn't that demanding a lot of our credibility?

On top of all this there is the reality that none of O'Reilly's controversial corporate doings are never even referred to in any of the newspapers he controls. Nobody in any of these newspapers, none of the many reputable journalists working across the phalanx of newspapers he controls, ever will raise even a query about these goings-on. But more than that, the journalists are used by some of these newspapers as hit-men on outside journalists who are questioning and critical.

The way in which, for instance, the Sunday Independent targets any critics of O'Reilly itself borders on the corrupt. It is implausible that O'Reilly has ordered this but certainly the editors know they will win his approval and commendation if that is what they do. It is an egregious abuse of power.

Now one of the prime cheer-leaders for O'Reilly and coincidentally for Bertie Ahern, Eoghan Harris, wins the preferment of a Senate nomination from Bertie Ahern. One supposes the conferring of yet another honour on O'Reilly himself would be seen as over-the-top and the honouring in this way of the Sunday Independent editor might appear ludicrous. But they have done the next best thing.
A decade ago there was a resolve to tackle corruption in Irish public life, now that is gone to be replaced with scorn for these who pursue issues that demand explanation. Far from cleaning up Irish public life it has been further coarsened and dishonoured.