BusinessAny Other Business

Jay Bourke to bankruptcy experts: ‘I’m broke, but I’m blessed’

John Burns: Denis O’Brien’s campaign on slave reparations in the Caribbean, a lack of tenders for €1m PR contract, OPW’s standing desks, and Ireland’s most expensive magazine?

Jay Bourke, pictured more than a decade ago outside his former Eden restaurant in Temple Bar: the now bankrupt businessman says he is 'broke' but 'blessed' in his life. Photograph: Alan Betson

There was a “record-beating turnout” for the annual general meeting of Restructuring and Insolvency Ireland, the group said on social media. Last month’s dinner at the Westin Hotel proved to be “a memorable night”, according to what was formerly known as the Irish Society of Insolvency Practitioners.

The keynote speech was given by restaurateur Jay Bourke, who was declared bankrupt last year over a €558,000 tax bill. The delicious irony of Bourke being paid a honorarium – said to be about €2,000 – for addressing a group of personal insolvency practitioners in the Banking Hall of the Westin was not lost on some attendees.

Jay Bourke: ‘The last recession, it changed everybody’Opens in new window ]

We hear that Bourke, one-time operator of Rí Rá and Panti Bar, among other ventures, gave a frank account of his colourful career, from the money made and risks taken to the businesses and friends he lost, as well as a few cuts at former landlords.

“I talked about my experience, and my own story,” the floppy-haired entrepreneur told me. “The purpose of any speech like that, from my perspective, is to say: ‘This [bankruptcy] is not the end of the world’. We have lost too many nice men who think the world has ended, and I was trying to make the point that, in fact, it hasn’t. There’s another day.”

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Bourke is actually quite philosophical about his predicament. “I still have my life, my family, my children, my friendships, which are the essence of life,” he says. “I am blessed in lots of ways. I’m broke, but I’m blessed.”

O’Brien’s campaign for slave reparations in Caribbean to continue

Denis O’Brien’s campaign to get slavery reparations for Caribbean countries will continue despite his troubles at Digicel, according to Kieran Mulvey, its director of government affairs.

“That campaign is active, and Denis is still meeting with different governments. He put a team in there over the last six months to meet with ministers, NGOs and academics, and a report is going shortly to Caricom, the regional EU-type institution,” Mulvey says.

Millions of Africans were forcibly transported to work on plantations in the Caribbean before slavery was abolished, and there has been a decade-long campaign for reparations to be paid by former colonial powers such as Britain, France and the Netherlands.

“We would hope that formal negotiations would take place, preferably on an EU-wide basis and with the UK government, towards developing a medium to long-term programme not dissimilar to what Ireland benefited from on accession to the EU,” Mulvey adds. “We want to get away from the idea of specific financial reparation, and towards development reparation and investment.”

O’Brien raised the issue at a speech in Cambridge in 2021, challenging Britain and France to atone for slavery, and suggesting Ireland could be an honest broker between them and their former colonies. Mulvey says the businessman is as committed as ever to the Caribbean cause, even though he may lose up to 90 per cent of Digicel to bond creditors in return for shaking off €1.7 billion in borrowings.

“Denis has secured guarantees around that, but also he has invested some of his own philanthropic money into this campaign, similar to Digicel,” Mulvey says.

Mulvey visits the Caribbean for a week every two to three months, whenever intervention with governments is required on behalf of Digicel in relation to issues such as licensing or taxation. Back home, the professional mediator is a Just Transition commissioner and a board member of An Post, but says he is about to step down from Sport Ireland, where he has been chair for 11 years.

The most expensive magazine in Ireland?

Have we found Ireland’s most expensive magazine? A colleague passing through Dublin Airport picked up a copy of the Harvard Business Review at WH Smith’s store airside, with a sticker price of £19.99 sterling. The euro equivalent only emerged at the till. While the exchange rate is €22.73, she was charged €31.

Products sold at the airport have to be security screened, which increases the cost, although we’re not sure what dangers lurk within the pages of the bi-monthly management magazine. WH Smith said: “We would like to apologise to the customer that the title was not priced in euro at the point of purchase, and a tilling error led to the wrong ticket price.”

They could have charged even more, though. Eason on O’Connell Street is also selling the Harvard Business Review. Its price? €32.17.

Training board desperately seeking tenders for €1m PR contract

While we’re on the subject of high prices, Louth and Meath Education Training Board is offering a two-year contract for public relations, marketing and event management worth €1 million. Which is €41,000 a month to do PR for a regional training board. And yet, according to Tony Corrigan, chief executive of Orbidal, no one may apply.

“Few of the businesses with the capability to deliver the work are likely to tender,” he told me. “The government now recognises there’s a problem in garnering enough interest from businesses to run competitive tendering processes.”

Announcing new measures to encourage small firms to take part in public procurement recently, Paschal Donohoe, Minister for Public Expenditure, revealed that the average number of bids last year for tenders valued between €25,000 and €50,000 was just two. In almost half of competitions, there was either one bid or no bids.

The government is changing the threshold at which contracts have to be advertised on eTenders, up from €25,000 to €50,000. Contracts worth less can be awarded on the basis of answers to written specifications.

Will that improve matters? Maybe not. Corrigan says the change will mainly benefit businesses that are already good at bidding for public service contracts. Whether it encourages new participants remains to be seen.

OPW stands down desk purchases

Standing desks, all the rage pre-Covid, may have had their moment. The Office of Public Works tells me it purchased 303 of them in 2021, at a cost of almost €270,000, but only 10 last year, and just two so far in 2023. These fads always have their ups and downs, but the main reason for the reduced demand may be that many public servants are now doing all their sitting and standing at home.