Bill O’Herlihy defends role as lobbyist for tobacco industry

Veteran RTÉ presenter says smuggling an ‘absolutely appalling’ problem

Veteran RTÉ presenter Bill O’Herlihy has said he has does not have a problem lobbying on behalf of the tobacco industry in relation to the issue of smuggling. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien/The Irish Times

Veteran RTÉ presenter Bill O’Herlihy has said he has does not have a problem lobbying on behalf of the tobacco industry in relation to the issue of smuggling. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien/The Irish Times

 

Veteran RTÉ presenter Bill O’Herlihy has said he has does not have a problem lobbying on behalf of the tobacco industry in relation to the issue of smuggling.

Mr O’Herlihy, who lobbies on behalf of the Irish Tobacco Manufacturers’ Advisory Committee (Itmac) through his public relations company O’Herlihy Communications, said the issue of smuggling was “absolutely appalling” and the State was losing €500 million in revenue annually as a result.

RTÉ presenter Sean O’Rourke put it to Mr O’Herlihy on his radio show today that he had been criticised in the past for using his access to Government to lobby on behalf of the tobacco industry, and for arranging a meeting between the industry and Taoiseach Enda Kenny.

Mr O’Herlihy attended a meeting between the tobacco industry and the Taoiseach, Minister for Finance Michael Noonan and then minister for justice Alan Shatter last year on the issue of tobacco smuggling.

The meeting angered Minister for Health Dr James Reilly, who declined to attend and has expressed a desire to “declare war” on big tobacco.

Mr O’Herlihy warned that Dr Reilly’s decision to bring in plain packaging for tobacco will create an “El Dorado” for smugglers and make things worse, not better.

He accused Dr Reilly of being “messianic” on his opposition to smoking, but “that doesn’t mean he makes the right decisions all the time”.

The 73-year-old Corkman has just published his autobiography, We’ll Leave It There, in advance of his last World Cup as presenter.

Mr O’Herlihy praised the Taoiseach and said he was doing a “fantastic job”, adding he thought the Government had “gone off the boil” recently. “But I have not the slightest doubt he’ll get it back again.” He maintained the Taoiseach had been completely underestimated by the press.

Mr O’Herlihy has a long association with Fine Gael. His grandfather was a Fine Gael TD, and he was one of the national handlers for Garret Fitzgerald when he was Taoiseach.

He said the loss of lobbyist Frank Flannery was the “biggest loss of all” to Fine Gael as he had been the party’s strategist. He urged Fine Gael to get him back “fairly smartly”. “I’m a huge fan of Frank’s,” he said.

Mr Flannery resigned as Fine Gael’s director of elections earlier this year as a result of controversies related to payments made to him as a lobbyist for Rehab.

Mr O’Herlihy accused the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of badly misrepresenting Mr Flannery. “Rehab is not a charity. It supplies services to the Government for which they pay.”

Mr O’Herlihy described Sinn Féin as a “party of political opportunism” who say one thing in the South and implement the opposite in the North.

“I’d nearly leave the country if they got into government,” he said.

Mr O’Herlihy also said he could have taken on the role of then taoiseach Jack Lynch’s press secretary around the time of the arms crisis.

Mr Lynch had given Mr O’Herlihy an exclusive interview on RTÉ at the time in relation to the dismissal of ministers in the cabinet. Five days afterwards, Mr Lynch had called asking him what his advice would be in relation to how to handle the press.

Mr O’Herlihy said he asked Mr Lynch to do another interview with him, but what he really thought was that Mr Lynch had made his point in the previous interview and should leave it at that.

“I always felt that if I said what I really believed I would have been government press secretary. Everything I have done was to see how good I could be at a certain job.”

He described the reasons given for his dismissal from RTÉ current affairs in the early 1970s was “bullshit”.

He had presented a Seven Days programme looking into moneylending which was criticised by the government and led to a tribunal of inquiry. Mr O’Herlihy said he stood by that programme, and that the government of the day had made him a scapegoat because it wanted to control RTÉ.