Questioning O’Brien’s charity motives clearly rankles

Businessman says if you make a profit in a community you pay into social projects

Donald Trump has published a statement drawing attention to Denis O’Brien’s links with the Clintons and the family’s charitable foundation, to which he and his company Digicel have donated between $10 million and $25 million. Video: Bryan O'Brien


Denis O’Brien takes his philanthropy very seriously. “I was brought up with a set of ethical and moral values which have led me to believe that what financial fortune my circumstances have allowed me the privilege of enjoying has always given rise to a proportionate obligation,” he has said.

This obligation, he continued in an affidavit sworn last October, is to his fellow man – “to the world in which I am living and the needs of those not merely less fortunate than me, but whose ability to live fulfilling and dignified lives have been compromised by the circumstances in which their lives have begun.”

O’Brien reacts with characteristic fury to any suggestion that his philanthropy is somehow insincere or a smokescreen to mask or draw attention away from his other activities. He has sued on the point, winning €150,000 in damages from the Daily Mail.

While the businessman has twice relocated himself off-shore, first to Portugal and then Malta, apparently for personal – and legal – tax advantage, his concern for the less well-off is undiminished. And he dislikes it when those he sees of similar charitable disposition to himself being criticised.

“When I see people attack the Clinton Foundation I’m aghast,” he said last week in an interview with Fortune magazine, given to coincide with his own attendance at the annual meeting in New York of the Clinton Global Initiative.

Bill Clinton and O’Brien have worked closely in Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the world and which was wrecked by an earthquake in 2010. The former US president became a UN special envoy to the Caribbean country; the Irish businessman its largest foreign investor, putting some $600 million (€535m) into the economy.

Close friends

Hillary Clinton

In his statement of claim in his action against Dublin-headquartered PR firm Red Flag Consulting, he makes reference to a video recording showing him with the president and former first lady, described in the statement as “two people who are [in addition to their obvious fame] close friends” of O’Brien’s.

In 2012, the Clinton Global Initiative named O’Brien a Clinton Global Citizen. In October 2013, O’Brien flew Clinton to Dublin to speak in support of the One Per Cent Campaign, an initiative by Philanthropy Ireland to get everyone – individuals and companies – to donate 1 per cent of their time or income to their chosen charity.

In June 2000, O’Brien set up The Iris O’Brien Foundation Limited (named after his mother and with an address at his offices in Grand Canal Quay, Dublin) to orchestrate some of his philanthropic activities. Among them is his sponsorship of Frontline Defenders, an Ireland-based non-governmental organisation that seeks to support rights activists under pressure in their own countries.

O’Brien has acknowledged that his business and philanthropic activities are intimately connected. It is apparent that he is the embodiment of both; one cannot exist without the other.


But further, “an attack on me in one arena is an attack on me in all arenas – it is simply not possible to compartmentalise my reputation”, he said in that affidavit.

This entangling of business and philanthropy was elaborated upon in his Fortune interview.

When asked how he decided how much to invest in social development project, “he smiles, licks his finger, and holds it up to the wind”, Fortune reported, before adding that employees drove projects. He gave them a budget at the start of the year and then, if they had good ideas along the way, “he will frequently come in and ‘top it off’.”

“To me this is modern business,” O’Brien told Fortune. “If you make a profit in a community, you reinvest in social projects.”

In the grounding, or first, affidavit of his legal action against Red Flag, O’Brien takes serious issue with one article produced by the PR firm, a profile of the businessman headlined Who is Denis O’Brien? He notes it accuses him of using “the cover of charitable act to deflect negative media commentary”.



Ironically, it is this precise accusation that has been made, repeatedly and in considerable detail, buttressed by supporting testimony evidence, against Donald Trump and his alleged philanthropic activities.

The questioning of his motives for his philanthropy clearly rankles. The statement of claim asserts that the accusations in the Who is Denis O’Brien? profile mean his charitable acts are insincere and self-serving; that he is a hypocrite and boastful and inflates, to the point of untruthfulness, his account of his good works in Haiti.