O Reilly - Challenging a Taoiseach
The Moriarty tribunal heard from former Taoiseach, John Bruton, and his adviser, Seán Donlon, how O'Reilly and his executives conveyed an impression of hostility towards the Rainbow government because it failed to concede to O'Reilly's corporate demands. O'Reilly denied this.
In August 1996 the then Taoiseach, John Bruton, visited Tony O'Reilly at one of his many homes, this one in west Cork, for an “informal” discussion. Nearly nine years later, on 23 March 2004, John Bruton told the Moriarty Tribunal that at this “informal” meeting, Tony O'Reilly had expressed dissatisfaction with his government (the Rainbow Coalition) on at least four matters in which he had a commercial interest.
O'Reilly was concerned mainly, according to John Bruton, about the alleged inaction of his (Bruton's) government in relation to illegal deflector operators who were operating without a licence. O'Reilly had an involvement with a company (Princes Holdings) that had a licence to supply TV signals by way of the MMDS system.
According to John Bruton, O'Reilly also expressed “some unhappiness” at the way the 1995 mobile phone licence competition had been run – the latter was associated with one of the losing bidders, Irish Cellular Telephones Ltd (the winning bidder was Denis O'Brien). There was also unhappiness on O'Reilly's part over grant assistance for a Heinz plant in Co Louth region (O'Reilly was chief executive of Heinz at the time), and regarding access difficulties to a mine in the midlands in which O'Reilly had an interest.
John Bruton told the tribunal O'Reilly “expressed a general dissatisfaction about the way he and his interests were being recognised by the government and would have given some examples”.
Asked if he had concluded that the government would “lose the Independent group as friends if their demands were not met”, John Bruton said: “That would seem to me to be a very unsubtle threat. I would have thought that the matter - the view would have been conveyed in a slightly more subtle way, but less - but with no less meaning, if you follow what I'm saying.” He agreed that it could be said that the Independent group had threatened him and his government. Subsequent to these events the Independent group newspapers did take a negative view of him and his government, he said.
John Bruton recalled that on the day of the 1997 general election, the Irish Independent carried a front-page editorial “urging people not to vote for a government that had succeeded in getting a 9 per cent annual growth rate during its term of office”. It indicated a “certain perversity of political opinion”, he said.
Subsequent to this meeting in west Cork, John Bruton asked his then personal adviser, Seán Donlon to follow through on O'Reilly's concerns.
In a statement to the Moriarty tribunal, Seán Donlon said he had a meeting in September 1996 with senior executives of O'Reilly's media company, IN&M, and was “in no doubt about Independent Newspapers' hostility to the Government parties if outstanding issues were not resolved to their satisfaction”.
The meeting between Seán Donlon and executives of IN&M took place at the company's offices on Hatch Street, Dublin; Seán Donlon met with Liam Healy (then chief executive) Brendan Hopkins and Mike Burns, the latter being a consultant to the Independent group. He said the MMDS issue took up more than half of the meeting.
The IN&M memo of the meeting noted: “We said they would lose INP (IN&M) as friends.”
In a statement of intended evidence, Michael Lowry, then Minister for Transport and communications, had said he was invited to the executive box at the races at the Curragh in July 1995, to see O'Reilly. He said the latter had sought to impress on him his commitment to Ireland and his level of investment in the State. He said O'Reilly had said he “expected his consortium” to win the mobile phone licence and he also expected Michael Lowry to order the shutdown of the TV deflector operations.
In his own evidence to the Tribunal, on 31 March 2004, Tony O'Reilly said the Rainbow Coalition was not given hostile coverage in Independent titles because of disputes he had with it over a number of commercial matters.
He said he had no foreknowledge of the editorial carried on the front page of the Irish Independent at the time of the 1997 general election. He said it was the policy of IN&M that its editors were not interfered with by members of the board.
It was put to him by counsel for the tribunal, that Seán had said he was left in “no doubt” as to the “hostility” of the Independent group towards the government, following his meeting with Independent group executives. Tony O'Reilly said the word hostility might have been a bit “pejorative”. It was more a “commercial proposition”. The government was dragging its feet and IN&M's partners in the MMDS TV channel distribution business, Princes Holdings, were “seething with us as well as with the government in relation to the amount of money they were losing in Ireland”.
He said the reference to the government losing IN&M as friends was to do with IN&M's position in its discussions with its fellow shareholder in Princes Holdings. The US shareholder was pressing to take a case against the State and IN&M was arguing against such a move. A case was eventually taken, in 1997, seeking damages of £100 million. He was “absolutely unequivocal” that the reference to the government losing IN&M as friends was a reference to potential litigation as against editorial content.
Asked if he had any input into the front page editorial on election day 1997, Tony O'Reilly said: “Absolutely not. Nor do I interfere in the editorial process in any IN&M newspaper.”
He said it was his view that he did not mention the mobile phone licence competition when he met John Bruton in west Cork in July 1996. He said he considered the matter of the mobile phone licence closed once the result was announced on 25 October, 1995. A few days later he had written a note to Mr Denis O'Brien congratulating him on winning the licence.