Denis O’Brien, the dossier and the spy who came into the Dáil
For months, Denis O’Brien has battled Dublin public affairs firm Red Flag in the High Court, claiming that an illegal conspiracy exists to damage him. But how did it come to this? Peter Murtagh explains a tortuous trail . . .
For many years, Mark Hollingsworth has used his role as a journalist and author to spy on people and inveigle information useful to his wealthy clients. Hollingsworth is the only person known to have obtained directly from Red Flag Consulting the dossier at the heart of Denis O’Brien’s legal action against the company. An examination of his career and modus operandi illustrates how he operates.
When he came to Dublin in 2015 asking people about O’Brien, zoning in on the businessman’s critics and seeking to identify their sources of information, he didn’t tell anyone that he was working with a corporate intelligence company. Instead, Hollingsworth said he was working for the Sunday Times but that newspaper has since effectively disowned him.
Not long before he came to Dublin, Hollingsworth was paid £22,000 (€26,000) by an intermediary acting for the London-based Irish developer Paddy McKillen. A decade and a half before that, he received £10,000 from the UK-based Egyptian businessman Mohamed Al-Fayed.
Al-Fayed, then owner of Harrods department store, was grateful for the information he bought from Hollingsworth – information that gave him an insight into how he was about to be cross-examined in a court case.
But the Irish journalists and politicians interviewed last year by Hollingsworth, either on the phone or in person – and at least one of them inside Leinster House, as confirmed last week in the Dáil by Social Democrats TD Catherine Murphy – knew nothing of his past and his links to the rich and powerful, let alone to a private spying company.
To them, he was, at least initially, just another, slightly other-worldly and mildly plummy, English journalist interested in, as he put it, an Irish oligarch.
In fact, Hollingsworth is at the nexus of a group of people, some of whom, but not all, connected to Denis O’Brien, whose relationships and interests may converge or diverge depending on the circumstances, but who are part of a background mosaic to one of the most unusual cases ever before an Irish court.
Hollingsworth’s role is central to the legal action O’Brien has taken against the Dublin headquartered PR firm Red Flag. His centrality is due to Hollingsworth being the only person known to have obtained, directly from Red Flag, the body of evidence that found its way to O’Brien.
It is this dossier, says O’Brien, that prompted him last October to start his legal action against the company and named employees, seeking, but not getting, one of the most extreme tools available to a litigant – a civil law search warrant. This would have allowed his agents to enter Red Flag’s offices and seize anything which they believed added weight to his accusation that he was the victim of a criminal conspiracy, defamation and malicious falsehood.
Instead, O’Brien was granted an order effectively preserving evidence that might support his claim of an illegal conspiracy against him and of defamation.
Benji the BinmanIn explaining something of Mark Hollingsworth and how he operates, a good place to start is with Benji the Binman.
Benji – whose real name is Benjamin Pell – is part of the lore of Fleet Street; Britain’s national newspaper industry. In the 1990s, he made a living rummaging through the dustbins of the rich and famous (and their lawyers), selling what he found, often to tabloid newspapers.
Pell’s clients for the information he procured from dustbins included News International (owners of the Sunday Times, among other titles) and Mirror Group Newspapers. According to the Guardian newspaper, the Sunday Times paid Pell £3,375 in April 1999 for information about Jonathan Aitken (the former British Conservative minister jailed that year for perjury); while the Mirror Group shelled out £1,435 in July 1999 for stories about TV personality Clive Anderson and former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell.
The Guardian also reported, in July 2000, that MI5, Britain’s internal security service, tipped off certain journalists and editors that Pell had also been showing an interest in rummaging through their waste.
Hollingsworth also had a fruitful relationship with Benji the Binman.
In February 2000, the Mail on Sunday, describing Hollingsworth variously as an “associate” of Mohamed Al-Fayed and “a freelance writer with close links” to the businessman, revealed that he had been able to do the Harrods owner a huge favour – for which Hollingsworth said he was paid £10,000.
At the time, Al-Fayed was being sued for defamation by the former Conservative Party junior minister Neil Hamilton, whose Westminster career came crashing down in the so-called cash-for-questions scandal. It was alleged that Hamilton, and a colleague, were paid by Al-Fayed to ask parliamentary questions, the answers to which were useful to him.
Hamilton’s litigation against Al-Fayed prompted Pell to rummage through the bins of lawyers advising the politician. The papers Pell thus acquired – scores of pages, wrote the Mail, revealing Hamilton’s lawyers’ strategy for questioning Al-Fayed – found their way to Hollingsworth who promptly sold them on to Al-Fayed.
Hollingsworth freely acknowledged that the legal waste papers he supplied to Al-Fayed had given the Harrods owner “a bit of a steer” as to the line of questioning he would face from Hamilton’s lawyers.
Hollingsworth claimed that he gave half the £10,000 to Pell. Pell moaned afterwards that he expected a further £5,000. Al-Fayed’s side denied the whole story, stating he never received any documents improperly.
Benji the Binman’s rummaging days are over now. He has been seen regularly in London’s Royal Courts of Justice, observing libel trials and legal knowledge propelled him into the role of media law quizmaster for the International Forum for Responsible Media.
As an author, Hollingsworth has shown an attraction to money and the power that it delivers. He has written eight books (six of them co-authored) with titles such as Against The Odds – The Rise of Nigeria as Africa’s Economic Superpower; Londongrad – From Russia With Cash: The Inside Story of the Oligarchs; and Thatcher’s Fortunes – The Life and Times of Mark Thatcher.
His penchant for merging freelance digging on behalf of wealthy clients with apparent journalism and research for books may well have pre-dated his encounter with Al-Fayed.
It certainly did not end there.
High-profile battleBetween 2012 and the spring of 2015, Irish hotelier and developer Paddy McKillen was involved in a high-profile battle with the Barclay Brothers, the secretive English media and retail twins Sir David Barclay and Sir Frederick Barclay. At issue was control of three of London’s most exclusive hotels, the Connaught in Mayfair; the Berkeley in Kensington; and, perhaps best known, Claridge’s also of Mayfair, in which both sides had ownership stakes.
To McKillen, the hotels were “jewels to be cherished”. He had little time for the Barclay Brothers whom he derided as mere “traders and philistines”.
As part of his efforts to fend them off, McKillen drew around himself a team of advisers and strategists.
The battle with the Barclays had overt and covert elements to it, including legal jousts in London’s high court; and intense lobbying, by both sides, of the Irish Bank Resolution Corporation (successor to Anglo Irish Bank); government officials and politicians in Dublin; as well as the use of private investigators and corporate intelligence companies.
“Paddy, how can I put this, is a man of kitchen cabinets. He doesn’t have an office really,” said one source familiar with McKillen’s methodology.
McKillen’s corps of trusted advisers and strategists included Mike Aynsley. From September 2009 until February 2013, Aynsley was chief executive of Anglo and subsequently of IBRC. Working with him on McKillen’s team was Richard Woodhouse, Aynsley’s comrade-in-arms at both banks, referred to affectionately by Aynsley as “Woody”.
Both men left IBRC together and, together in London, they set up Prospera Associates, a Mayfair-based management consultancy that, according to itself, specialises in distressed banks, corporate restructuring and “particularly challenging situations requiring absolute discretion and careful management”.
Woodhouse’s role in Anglo and IBRC was specialised asset management, which meant managing major customers, among them McKillen and O’Brien. Anysley and O’Brien also developed a rapport that extended to competitive slimming, each overweight man trying to shed more pounds than the other, with the loser donating to charity.
During McKillen’s long battle with the Barclays, he and O’Brien met occasionally in London and often dined together.
In October 2012, McKillen faced a problem: the Barclay Brothers, having won a legal battle in the long war with McKillen, pressed for payment of costs amounting to £17.2 million. The Irish man turned for help to IBRC for a loan of £5 million.
The bank, in which, at that time, Aynsley and Woodhouse still worked, approved emergency short-term funding and in the process, examined the commercial relationship between McKillen and O’Brien, their assets and liabilities.
Because of an injunction granted to McKillen and O’Brien by the High Court in Dublin in March 2013, The Irish Times is unable to fully report on the nature of the relationship between the two men with regard to the loan application, other than to report such a relationship existed, and that the loan application was approved by the bank.
However, in the Dáil last week, Catherine Murphy said that O’Brien had offered to go guarantor for the £5 million loan for McKillen. In the event, however, McKillen never drew down the loan because, within days of it being approved, he was able to meet the costs shortfall in his Barclay Brothers case from the proceeds of the sale of property he owned on Place Vendôme in Paris.
Controversy over the loan has irked McKillen, who prides himself on always paying his debts and always having serviced his loans according to lending agreements.
Soon after leaving Dublin and setting up business in London, Aynsley and Woodhouse were assisting, among others, McKillen.
Crisis managementHelping McKillen with strategy was a company named Project Associates, a tough-minded London-based public relations consultancy that specialises in reputation and crisis management. Key players from Project included Rebecca Davies, a director and chief operating officer at the company; Kate Miller, Project’s head of corporate and litigation practices, who advises on protecting against damage reputations and achieving strategic objectives; and account director Celine Cheung.
Among Woodhouse’s contributions to McKillen’s side of the battle was his access to the world of corporate intelligence-gathering. The former banker was sufficiently “in” with the London corporate intelligence-gathering set to be invited to parties hosted by Kroll, the market leaders whose boast is “we replace uncertainty with answers”.
As one of McKillen’s team put it: “Basically, Richard is a kind of wannabe spook; he just loves it, he just adores the intrigue”.
Woodhouse’s friends in London’s densely populated business intelligence sector include two directors at Alaco, a business intelligence company founded by Amy Lashinsky, formerly managing director of Kroll’s business intelligence unit. The two are Adrian Stones, a former operative with MI6, Britain’s foreign intelligence gathering service; and Ambrose Carey, co-founder of Alaco with Lashinsky.
Talking recently about Alaco’s operations, Lashinsky remarked that the company often used what she described as “tame journalists”.
One such example is Hollingsworth who has a long-standing relationship with Alaco.
When McKillen’s team wanted to examine what they hoped was a public relations weakness for the Barclay Brothers (their standing among the community in the Channel Islands), Hollingsworth was brought in.
The publicity shy Barclays live on Brecqhou, a tiny island they own off the coast of Sark, one of the Channel Islands. There, they have built a vast mock-gothic castle of granite, complete with battlements and turrets, two swimming pools and a helicopter pad.
The Channel Islands, while being intensely British in character, are self-governing dependencies of the British Crown and are politically and legally semi-detached from the UK itself.
Within the Channel Islands themselves, Sark has jurisdiction over Brecqhou and many of Sark’s 600 or so residents do not care for the Barclay Brothers and changes they have proposed for Brecqhou.
As a result, there have been legal and political battles between the brothers and residents over how the Barclays run their affairs on the smaller island, including a proposal to make it independent of the larger island with the aim, say critics, of turning it into even more of an off-shore tax haven than the Channel Islands already are.
When McKillen’s fight with the Barclay Brothers hit the headlines, Sark residents, among them several writers and journalists, approached his side offering stories and insights about the brothers’ behaviour in the hope that McKillen’s difficulty might prove to be their opportunity.
As a result, over 100 testimonies about the Barclays were gathered from islanders. Hollingsworth never went to Sark but he was involved, operating out of an office at 35 Piccadilly, as he still does, and working closely with Woodhouse.
It was a twin-pronged approach involving both men and Alaco, with the parallel aim of probing the solvency of the Barclays.
A source close to the McKillen team explained: “One of the things that we did, or one of his ideas actually that we helped him with, was to go on the offensive and really scrutinise the Barclay Brothers’ financial condition because lots of rumours had been circulating for years that they were in fact much less financially secure than they say.
“Woodhouse in particular was going to really drill down on the financial statements and sort of essentially come up with a story that they were on the brink of financial collapse and sort of promote that story around the City of London with his banking friends and colleagues.”
Hollingsworth’s job was to pull it all together – the financial profiling and the human interest elements from Sark – and turn it all into a compelling, and for the Barclays Brothers, very damaging big read.
But in the Spring of 2015, McKillen and the Barclays settled their differences. Under a deal, both sold their stakes in the three London hotels to Qatari interests in an agreement that nonetheless allowed McKillen to continue to lead, direct and develop them, something he does with enthusiasm.
Suddenly, peace had broken out and Hollingsworth never got to write his big read, either in newspaper or book form. He even had a provisional title for it and even circulated a draft chapter.
“It was crap,” according to one person who read it, “really bad.”
McKillen celebrated the end of the saga by hosting drinks in Claridge’s. Among those present were Aynsley and Woodhouse, along with others, notably John Rocha, who designed a glass chapel for a sculpture park at Chateau La Coste, McKillen’s 600-acre vineyard estate near Aix en Provence, his paean to organic wine, art and architecture. Also in attendance was Richard Rogers, architect of a pavilion at the chateau; and his wife, Michelin-ranked chef and restaurateur Ruth Rogers.
For his efforts – for the work carried out, and other work that, because of the settlement, would never see the light of day – in March 2015 Hollingsworth was paid £22,000, the advance, in effect, for a book that would never be written.
The money McKillen paid to Hollingsworth was through a third party who was reimbursed. The end of the McKillen-Barclay Brothers saga meant that Hollingsworth was now free to do other things.
Asked to comment on the payment to Hollingsworth, and the role he, Aynsley and Woodhouse played in the battle with the Barclays, McKillen said yesterday: “All these matters are behind us and subject to a confidential settlement agreement.”
As coincidence would have it, the media was reporting the McKillen-Barclay Brothers deal on the very day that RTÉ informed O’Brien that it was probing the banking deals he and McKillen had with IBRC.
The modern block at No 17 is named Lex House, after the Latin word for law. The third floor is the UK headquarters of Alaco, which describes itself as a “leading business intelligence firm”.
Alaco makes several proud boasts about the services it offers clients, including that it helps them “manage risk and protect their reputations through the provision and analysis of information”.
“We serve our clients in many different ways and often answer questions that do not fit neatly into any category,” the company proclaims on its website, alaco.com. “Our network, our ability to gather relevant intelligence, and over a decade of experience, help us deliver meaningful results, whatever the brief. From complex, multi-jurisdictional investigations to the most sensitive private matter, we assemble a team and determine a strategy appropriate to the task.”
When Alaco is tasked to investigate, the company deploys what it hails as its “innate curiosity, our collective experience and our worldwide network of proven contacts [to] bring depth and quality to our research and analysis.
“It makes us different. It delivers quality of intelligence.”
Like state-run spying agencies, Alaco is a magnet for individuals with often exotic pasts.
During his time with MI6, Adrian Stones used diplomatic cover while working in Afghanistan and Pakistan, according to information given last year as part of court proceedings relating to the winding up of a children’s charity in London.
His colleague, Ambrose Carey, has a fascinating personal lineage. He is the illegitimate son of the 12th Marquess of Queensbury and half-brother of Caroline Carey, widow of Salem bin Laden, a half-brother of Osama bin Laden.
There can be no doubt but that the story of O’Brien, Red Flag and Hollingsworth is, as Alaco’s sales pitch puts it, complex, multi-jurisdictional and sensitive.
No longer investigating the Barclay Brothers, the attention of Hollingsworth and Alaco turned elsewhere.
From the spring of 2015 on, everyone approached by Hollingsworth is clear about one thing: in his questioning about O’Brien, he quickly came to the nub of his interest: the source of the leaks about O’Brien’s banking arrangements with IBRC and from where O’Brien’s critics were getting their information.
Belief in Hollingsworth’s opening conversational gambit – that he was writing a profile about Denis O’Brien, the Irish oligarch – never survived prolonged contact with him.
On April 28th 2015, the day that news of the McKillen-Barclay Brothers deal broke, RTÉ researcher Pamela Fraher, who was working with the station’s business editor David Murphy, wrote to O’Brien and to IBRC. She posed a series of questions to them about a deal O’Brien was alleged to have concluded with Aynsley over the rate of interest the bank charged the businessman and the time it allowed him repay his loans.
Within two days, O’Brien was asking the courts to ban RTÉ reporting details of his banking arrangements – and to restrict the media also from reporting of his request for the ban.
Some of what O’Brien and the bank wanted kept confidential emerged in the Dáil when, on May 28th, Catherine Murphy raised O’Brien’s allegedly preferential treatment by the bank. Her comments, and similar remarks from the Sinn Féin finance spokesman Pearse Doherty, resulted in further legal action by O’Brien, including threats by his solicitors that caused The Irish Times and RTÉ to delay for several days reporting what she had said in the Dáil.
The Irish Times sought, and obtained, clarity from the High Court affirming the media’s right to report proceedings of the Oireachtas.
In London, Woodhouse asked a member of McKillen’s Barclay Brothers war cabinet who they thought might be “leaking information to Catherine Murphy”. Over the coming months, at least one journalist working for O’Brien asked the same question of professional colleagues in other media organisations.
During June and July, Hollingsworth was also asking the question. In numerous interviews, he only ever deviated from O’Brien as his main subject to ask about developer Joe O’Reilly and Dundrum shopping centre.
At the time, McKillen was one of several bidders for the centre, which was part of Project Jewel, a portfolio of loans relating to the centre, which the National Asset Management Agency sold eventually to an Anglo-German consortium that did not include him.
One of the first people Hollingsworth contacted was Barry Moloney, a former close personal friend and business partner of O’Brien.
Hollingsworth had acquired Moloney’s 086 number, one he had since 1997 when he was working with O’Brien at Esat Digifone. Hollingsworth tracked him down on holidays in southern California. Moloney was surprised he had his number.
Hollingsworth didn’t respond when asked where he got it.
In a conversation that lasted about 10 minutes, Hollingsworth said he was writing, for the Sunday Times, an article about O’Brien and “his stranglehold on Ireland”.
‘Weird’ phone callMoloney found the conversation “weird” and, as he told people later, noted that Hollingsworth kept coming back to asking about Catherine Murphy’s sources.
Moloney decided to check Hollingsworth out and called Irish-born but London-based PR consultant and lobbyist Rory Godson. Godson said he too had had an email from Hollingsworth. He confirmed that Hollingsworth had told him also that he was writing something for the Sunday Times.
In late August, Hollingsworth called Moloney again to say he was coming to Dublin and asked to arrange a meeting. Hollingsworth was also looking for a contact number for Lucinda Creighton.
Moloney, who was unable to meet Hollingsworth in Dublin, didn’t have a number for Creighton but thought that former journalist Karl Brophy of Red Flag Consulting, whom Moloney met in 2012 at Gavin O’Reilly’s wedding, might. Brophy was on holiday with his wife and daughters at a holiday camp near Montpellier in southwest France when he got Moloney’s request and texted Creighton, who was at the Electric Picnic festival in Stradbally.
Creighton’s willingness to meet Hollingsworth (which she did when he came to Dublin) and Brophy’s role is setting up the contact was the start of the saga for Red Flag.
Ian Kehoe, editor of the Sunday Business Post, was nervous when Hollingsworth approached him in the summer of 2015 wanting to talk about O’Brien. The businessman is suing the newspaper over an article written by associate editor Tom Lyons.
Background checking on Hollingsworth by Lyons, including a call to the Sunday Times in London who said Hollingsworth was not working for them, convinced Kehoe to keep his distance.
For Lyons, the decision was easy.
“He just struck me as a classic ‘looks like a journalist but is he a journalist?’” recalls Lyons. “I just said to Ian don’t talk to this guy and Ian said, ‘okay I won’t.’”
At about this same time, RTÉ’s David Murphy was also contacted by Hollingsworth. His line was the same: he was writing a big story on O’Brien for the Sunday Times. But, during a 30-minute phone conversation, Hollingsworth soon began asking Murphy for his sources for the O’Brien-injuncted IBRC story.
Throughout the summer, Hollingsworth tried to use contacts he made while working for McKillen to access politicians, notably Catherine Murphy, via, among others Mick Wallace.
In August, Anne Marie McNally, an adviser to Murphy, was on holiday, oddly enough, on Anna Maria Island at the mouth of Tampa Bay in Florida, when she got an email from Hollingsworth.
He said that he was “working on an article about Denis O’Brien for the Sunday Times UK edition which will focus on his finances, his loans and the legal actions he has taken against newspapers and broadcasters”.
Dáil questioningThey agreed a mutually convenient time for a phone call but, from the start of the conversation, Hollingsworth made her feel uncomfortable because he kept asking for the source of the information behind Murphy’s Dáil questioning, in a way that seemed to invite her to agree to details that he was advancing to her.
“He would also make comments along the lines of ‘So, this Anglo official must have been disgruntled . . .’ to which I would reply ‘Well, you are making an assumption that it is an Anglo official. I didn’t say that,’” recalled McNally.
She concluded, as did others approached during the summer, that Hollingsworth was essentially fishing for Murphy’s sources and was not engaged in a normal journalistic exercise.
Hollingsworth’s visit to Dublin took place at the start of the second week of September. He and his partner stayed from September 7th to 8th in inexpensive, student accommodation in Trinity College.
During his stay, Hollingsworth met, among others, David Murphy, Lucinda Creighton and Catherine Murphy. The meeting with Murphy, who was accompanied by McNally, was at 11am in room C of the Dáil’s Leinster House 2000 extension.
During the conversation, a familiar pattern emerged early.
“We just got a bad feeling,” recalls Murphy. “He was only interested at the meeting . . . he kept trying to narrow [into our] ‘source’. We just kept on saying ‘sources’ because that’s the factual situation. It was like an interrogation.”
Back in London following his flying visit to Dublin, Hollingsworth again contacted Red Flag’s Brophy and asked if he knew any “whistleblowers” with information about O’Brien or any other sources for information about the businessman?
Brophy said he didn’t but he had a pile of newspaper cuttings and related material and Hollingsworth was welcome to have that. Hollingsworth said he’d like to see the material.
Brophy – still in southwest France – emailed Brid Murphy, a Red Flag colleague in Dublin, and asked her to send Hollingsworth the cuttings and related material on O’Brien, which contained little that was not already on the public record.
Following Brophy’s request, on or about September 8th, Brid Murphy emailed Hollingsworth a link to Dropbox, an online data-sharing service, where he would find the dossier that is now at the heart of O’Brien’s case against the PR company – a compendium of 339 files, most of them copies of articles (newspaper cuttings) on O’Brien that had been published already in Irish, British and international media.
There were also several other files that read like briefing papers for new readers, as it were. They dealt with biographical details of O’Brien’s life and business career, what the Moriarty tribunal report said about him and Michael Lowry, and a draft speech by then Fianna Fáil TD Colm Keaveney in which he excoriated O’Brien.
There is no love lost between Brophy and O’Brien, nor indeed between Red Flag’s non-executive chairman Gavin O’Reilly, and O’Brien. Indeed, in many respects, the battle between O’Brien and the PR company has the characteristics of a proxy war, a continuation of the struggle for control of Independent News and Media in which O’Brien emerged victorious over Tony O’Reilly, Gavin O’Reilly’s father.
It was perhaps not surprising, therefore, that Brophy sought to assist Hollingsworth, in the then belief that Hollingsworth was gathering information against O’Brien.
To that end, Brophy even set up a telephone interview between Hollingsworth and the Red Flag client on whose behalf the dossier of newspaper cuttings and of the man and his business record had been assembled.
On the appointed weekend, Hollingsworth rang the client three times, but despite being alerted to expect a call, the client missed all three. It is perhaps instructive as to the importance both Hollingsworth and the client appear to have attached to their abortive relationship that neither seemed at all bothered at having failed to make contact and capitalise on Brophy’s introduction.
It is unclear what, if anything, Hollingsworth did with this information about Red Flag’s client which, in any event, would only have been hearsay.
Later in September, on the 18th, Hollingsworth had his delayed meeting with Moloney, who again thought him “weird”. On the 25th at the Chelsea Harbour Hotel, he also met Brophy, who was in London for a Red Flag board meeting, for the first and only time.
Brophy was nonplussed at their face-to-face encounter, telling friends later that Hollingsworth “hadn’t a f***in’ rasher’s what he was doing. It was just all over the place”.
As a result of this encounter, Brophy refused to respond to further overtures from Hollingsworth.
Hollingsworth has told people he thought the material on the Dropbox dossier was commonplace and pretty valueless in terms of disclosing any fresh information about O’Brien.
It certainly didn’t present any fresh insights into the man nor reveal anything about the sources of Catherine Murphy’s IBRC information.
Hollingsworth claims that the dossier found its way to the business intelligence company Alaco, by a route that was either direct from himself or indirect through a third party.
Digicel flotationOn October 5th, the Dropbox was accessed and some of the material was downloaded. The remaining material, which was the bulk of the dossier, was downloaded the following day, October 6th – coincidently the day the flotation of O’Brien’s main telecommunications company Digicel was withdrawn for market reasons, according to O’Brien.
Soon after O’Brien’s case against Red Flag erupted in the High Court, Hollingsworth told several people that, at a meeting in a London internet cafe, he had given the dossier to a person from Alaco via access to the Dropbox link and that it was downloaded on to what might have been a portable hard drive.
“He tried to sort of give us a bum steer on the dates,” said one person to whom Hollingsworth spoke, who has been interviewed extensively by The Irish Times. According to this source, Hollingsworth said “he met with the Alaco representative, who was the young woman, in an internet cafe in Earl’s Court . . .
“He said she had some sort of machine, about six inches long, he said he logged on to his internet account, he got into the Dropbox thing, he walked away and she downloaded the Red Flag material on to some sort of machine.”
The internet cafe where Hollingsworth said the handover took place, before changing his story, did indeed exist. It was located at 181 Earl’s Court Road, London, and was operating in early October 2015 – at about the time Hollingsworth said he met a person there from Alaco.
Today, it has relocated and the slightly seedy first-floor room it occupied has been abandoned, the only remaining evidence of its existence being plastic signs above the entrance door and in the window proclaiming “Internet Cafe”.
After his name was publicly associated with O’Brien’s action against Red Flag, Hollingsworth recanted this version of events and now denies that he met anyone in an internet cafe and facilitated downloading from Dropbox.
“Didn’t happen,” he says, claiming a breakdown caused by stresses in his personal life prompted him to tell lies to people to evoke their sympathy.
To other sources, however, he continues to confirm that the contents of the Dropbox were indeed passed to Alaco, though sometimes he introduces into his narrative version an unidentified third-party intermediary as the person to whom he gave access to the Dropbox and who then passed the data to Alaco.
We asked Alaco to comment on this but they did not respond.
Hollingsworth has stated consistently that the Dropbox dossier contents are identical to the contents of a USB memory stick which is at the centre of O’Brien’s legal action against Red Flag Consulting.
Within a few days of the Red Flag dossier being downloaded from the Dropbox, O’Brien says a USB memory stick arrived, out of the blue, in an envelope at his office in Dublin. He gave it, he says, to Aiden Eames, the solicitor who had acted for his friend and IBRC loan associate, Paddy McKillen.
When O’Brien read the contents of the USB stick, he was, he says, “shocked”.
According to an affidavit he swore on October 13th launching his legal action against Red Flag the following day, an action in which the solicitor acting for O’Brien is Eames, the contents of the USB stick “were simply extraordinary”.
Asked to comment on the role of Hollingsworth and Alaco and the provenance of the dossier central to his case against Red Flag, a spokesman for O’Brien said: “We are not making any comment.”
Line of questions – ‘The Irish Times’ requests
In May 2016, The Irish Times requested an interview with Richard Woodhouse on the “McKillen-Barclay Brothers saga and various people that became embroiled in it, prior to it being settled” and about “the strategising, the PR battle and the work of Project Associates, and Alaco and Mark Hollingsworth”.
Declining our request, Woodhouse said that anything he and Mike Aynsley had done since leaving IBRC “is understandably bound by client confidentiality”.
Earlier this month, having previously made a number of overtures to Alaco during an extensive investigation, The Irish Times sent Ambrose Carey a series of specific and detailed questions about Mark Hollingsworth and his work with the business intelligence company.
They included questions asserting that Hollingsworth was gathering information about Denis O’Brien and the source of leaks about O’Brien; that Hollingsworth met an Alaco employee and gave them access to the Dropbox file with the Red Flag-assembled dossier on O’Brien; and on other matters relating to Hollingsworth’s relationship to Alaco.
Neither the company nor Carey has responded to any of our requests for comment.
When photographing the exterior of Alaco’s London offices from the roadway outside, a man approached from inside the building and said we did not have “permission”.
Mark Hollingsworth declined to be interviewed.