Denis O’Brien content to be ‘a buccaneer’ but not a member of a gang
O’Brien says articles wrongly meant he was among borrowers linked to financial crisis
Denis O’Brien had no problem with being called “a buccaneer” but alleges he was defamed by a newspaper for portraying him as a “developer king” in a “gang” of 22 that bankrupted the country.
The businessman was being cross-examined on the fifth day of his libel action against the publisher of the Sunday Business Post over articles in March 2015.
He claims he was defamed by being wrongly included in the “gang” who owed €26 billion to the banks at the time of the 2008 financial crisis and were characterised as being responsible for the collapse of the banks.
What followed was another colourful back-and-forth between barrister and businessman on his fourth day in the witness box in Court 25 of the Four Courts, where there was standing room only.
Michael McDowell SC, for the newspaper, asked O’Brien whether he was seriously suggesting that the Sunday Independent was being complimentary in describing him as a buccaneer in a 2012 article about his loans to Anglo Irish Bank when he was taking issue with the Sunday Business Post including him in a “gang”.
McDowell read out the dictionary definition of “buccaneer” as “a pirate, originally one operating in the Caribbean, who acts in a recklessly adventurous and often unscrupulous way”.
“There is a team called the Buccaneers,” replied the businessman, who runs a mobile phone business in the Caribbean, referring to the Athlone rugby team.
“It is not a derogatory term in my mind; gang is.”?
But what about the 2010 biography of O’Brien by former Irish Times journalist Siobhán Creaton that also described him as being in a gang, asked McDowell.
“I never even read the book so I don’t know,” replied O’Brien.
“One of the benefits of greatness is that you don’t even have to read the only biography of you ever written,” suggested McDowell, a former minister for justice.
The businessman, cradling the Post’s 2015 front page and six inside pages among other papers in the witness box, appeared nonplussed.
O’Brien said repeatedly under questioning that his banking details were private and confidential and that he had a right to keep them private
There were plenty of terse exchanges between them, including over O’Brien’s refusal to disclose details of his loans at Anglo when journalist Tom Lyons, author of a 2012 Sunday Independent report and a co-author of the 2015 articles at issue in the court, sent questions to O’Brien’s spokesman in 2012.
“Because it is none of his business. I am sure you don’t spray your banking details around the [Law] Library or in the public,” O’Brien told McDowell.
O’Brien said repeatedly under questioning that his banking details were private and confidential and that he had a right to keep them private. He was being “polite” in saying that he “had no comment” to the journalist’s questions when others would tell him to “get off” and “get lost”.
“It could have been stronger than that,” he said.
McDowell later took O’Brien through the rest of the “gang”.
The businessman said he found none of others “reprehensible” – McDowell’s word – except for “convicted fraudster” Achilleas Kallakis, who was on the list.
There was nothing defamatory about being included in the article, McDowell suggested to O’Brien, as “nobody thought the worse of you”.
“It was a hatchet job, page by page,” replied the businessman, holding copies of the newspaper.
There were lighter moments as McDowell challenged O’Brien on his assertion that he was never a property developer, but a long-term property investor, asking him about his property dealings.
Asked about his one-time efforts to sell his Portuguese golf resort Quinta do Lago for €220 million, O’Brien said his wife encouraged him to sell the estate because guests were coming up to him to ask about cutting the grass on the golf greens and giving their view on the speed of the greens.
“She said, ‘It is not a place where you can go and relax’ so I said I would sell it,” O’Brien said.
“In the end, my mother said she would be very upset if I sold it and I listen to my mother.”
His mother “prevailed,” he said, and “she won the argument”.
“So your wife has to put up with it?” asked McDowell.
“Like all wives do, Mr McDowell,” replied O’Brien.