1995 was the year that Denis O’Brien went from relative obscurity to becoming one of the best-known figures in Irish corporate life, not to mention Irish life generally. As the year started the then 37-year old was already the owner of a number of private radio stations and had been a failed bidder for the first national private radio licence, a competition he had lost to the ill-fated Century Radio. His Esat Telecom was busy trying to barge its way into the fixed-line telecoms market, then a monopoly run by the State-owned Telecom Éireann.
O’Brien’s interest in bidding for the State’s hugely lucrative second mobile phone licence was generally known, but the favourite was a consortium called Persona, which numbered Motorola among its members. O’Brien’s partner in Esat Digifone was the Norwegian telecoms giant, Telenor.
The bids were submitted on August 4th, 1995, and Digifone’s winning of the licence was announced on October 25th, 1995, by the then minister for communications, Michael Lowry, at a press conference in his department. O’Brien is understood to have jumped and put his fist through a roof panel in his offices when he heard the news. By the end of the decade O’Brien had fallen out with his Norwegian partners, and when he sold out to BT the £230 million plus he got from the deal cemented his image as the poster child of the new Ireland.
Three years later the Moriarty tribunal announced it was investigating possible payments by O’Brien to Lowry, and interference by the latter in the licence competition. It was not until 2011 that the tribunal gave its findings – Lowry had interfered with the competition, to the benefit of Esat, and O’Brien had sought to make payments to Lowry. The two men insist the tribunal got it wrong.
The fact that O’Brien’s Esat Digifone had won the “fiercely fought” battle for the State’s second mobile phone licence was reported on the front page of The Irish Times the day after the announcement, in a single column report by the current business editor, John McManus.
The story dominated the business pages inside. The story appeared in all the business pages of that day’s newspapers and continued to be a major story for the following two years.
On August 4th, 1995, the day the bids had to be submitted, Esat had delivered its bid using a 40ft articulated truck emblazoned with the words “Esat Digifone”, dry ice and Telenor staff dressed as Vikings. This sort of pizzazz became a feature of the years when Esat was in business, and it created a new atmosphere in the Irish business world. O’Brien’s spectacular success also served as a major boost to the idea of entrepreneurism in Ireland.
O’Brien’s smiling face dominated the front page of The Irish Times on January 12th, 2000, the day after the announcement that BT had bought his telecoms business from him. The £230 million O’Brien personally was to get from the deal created a whole new template for what was possible in Irish business.
While O’Brien’s youth and success served as a new and positive role model for younger Irish entrepreneurs, and provided a shot of excitement to Irish business journalism, his decision to move his tax residency outside Ireland, followed by revelations at the Moriarty tribunal, complicated people’s attitude towards him.
Some people’s admiration remained relatively uncomplicated, giving greater weight to the commercial success and spectacular accumulation of riches, while others tempered their appreciation for what he had achieved and the investments he continued and continues to make in Ireland with consideration of the controversies and their effect on corporate life.
Few businessmen have had the effect O’Brien has had on Irish business journalism, given that he is the biggest private owner of media here by a long shot.
He is famous for his tendency to initiate legal action (as he is fully entitled to do) against those whom he believes have defamed him. Many of those in politics and the media wonder at the effect this tendency, coupled with his position as a media baron, has on Irish journalism, and business journalism in particular. The decision to take a case against journalist Sam Smyth personally, but not against the media in which he had published or broadcast the items complained of, was a particularly notable development.
On the other hand, O’Brien has ploughed an enormous amount of money into his Irish media investments. His Communicorp radio group has been loss-making for years, and his shareholding in Independent News & Media cost him approximately half a billion euro. Much of the value of the latter has since disappeared.
Colm Keena covered the Moriarty tribunal for The Irish Times from 1997 to 2011. He is public affairs correspondent with The Irish Times.