Unease in Government over INM debt-relief moves
Senior Government figures are becoming apprehensive about the prospect of Independent News & Media (INM), Ireland’s largest newspaper group, having some of its debts written off by State-supported banks.
INM, publisher of the Irish Independent and Sunday Independent, owes more than €400 million to a consortium of eight lenders that includes the State-owned Allied Irish Banks and Bank of Ireland, in which the State has a 15 per cent stake.
Financial pressure on INM has led it to enter talks with its banks to restructure this debt. Political and business sources believe a write-down of up to €100 million may be in play.
INM’s largest shareholder, with a 29.9 per cent stake, is billionaire businessman Denis O’Brien. Other investors include businessman Dermot Desmond, who has a 6.4 per cent stake, and former INM chief executive Sir Anthony O’Reilly (13.3 per cent), who for decades was the driving force behind the business.
The engagement between INM and its banks is set to intensify after INM sold its South African business at the weekend for some €169.6 million, the proceeds of which are likely to be used to pay down debt.
“People are apprehensive about what the restructuring is going to mean down the road. That’s inevitable,” said a Government source of INM’s discussions with its lenders.
“Nothing has been presented to Government yet. The anticipation is that there’ll be major restructuring. The standing instruction to the banks is to get on and do their job.”
Expectation of deal
There is some expectation in business circles that a deal will be struck on commercial grounds to ensure the remainder of INM’s debt is repaid, but the involvement of State-supported banks is delicate for the Coalition.
A second Government source, who stressed that State-supported banks are obliged to operate at arm’s length from the Coalition, acknowledged potential for political difficulty if a debt relief deal was struck.
Government banking policy rules out intervention by the Minister for Finance in day-to-day management and commercial decisions in State-supported banks, including in relation to lending.
In addition to AIB and Bank of Ireland, the other banks in the consortium are: Ulster Bank, KBC, ANZ, Barclays, Lloyds and BNP Paribas. Each is believed to have a roughly equal exposure to INM.
INM declined to discuss the talks or the reaction to them in Government circles.
“Driven by its management and board, INM is currently in constructive and ongoing discussions with its banks. INM cannot comment on speculation as to what the outcome of those discussions may be,” a company spokesman said.
Following findings adverse to Mr O’Brien by the Moriarty tribunal, there was unease within Labour and Fine Gael last year when Mr O’Brien appeared alongside Taoiseach Enda Kenny at a St Patrick’s Day event at the New York Stock Exchange.
Mr O’Brien, who has always rejected the tribunal’s report, became the leading player in INM after prevailing in a prolonged corporate battle with Sir Anthony. His associate, Leslie Buckley, is chairman of INM.
Some of INM’s banks are said to have resisted debt restructuring but it has been cast as crucial for its financial health.