Miriam Lord: Guess who should not have come to dinner?

Ministers and billionaires are meant to be smart. What were Naughten and McCourt thinking?

Denis Naughten: to his credit, he quickly stepped down from his Cabinet post. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Denis Naughten: to his credit, he quickly stepped down from his Cabinet post. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

 

“David [McCourt] slingshots the goliaths” reads one of the blurbs for the billionaire businessman’s recent book on how to succeed in business and life.

Denis Naughten would be the first to say he is no Goliath, but he shipped considerable collateral damage this week from McCourt’s catapult.

That endorsement on the inside flap is written by Gabriel Stricker, author of Mao in the Boardroom: Marketing Genius from the Mind of the Master Guerrilla.

McCourt’s opus is titled Total Rethink: Why Entrepreneurs Should Act Like Revolutionaries.

Really, suits are wasted on these guys. They should be wearing combat fatigues.

McCourt explained Total Rethink at a glitzy London launch earlier this year. “The single theme of the book is that the world is moving too fast. You need to blow up the model and rethink everything. You can use both the left side of your brain and the right side. You can dig deep to everything, if you want to be successful today.”

Piers Morgan interviewed the telecoms squillionaire at the event in the Halcyon Gallery in Mayfair, beginning with an oft-asked question: “How do we get to be billionaires?”

Obviously Piers didn’t get the full answer, otherwise we wouldn’t be rushing out to buy the manual. That wouldn’t make business sense.

In this fast moving business battleground, people can easily get left behind. Author McCourt “lays out the reality of the dangerous situation we find ourselves in and suggests solutions which will empower everyone, including business people, politicians, diplomats and teachers, to repair the damage we have already done, and prepare for the dramatic changes to come”.

One dangerous situation to which neither David nor Denis apparently gave much thought, or rethought, was the fact that their frequent social meetings could be misconstrued, given that David was chasing one of the most lucrative contracts in the history of the State and Denis was the man who would sign off on it.

And they didn’t foresee the dramatic changes that might follow if those personal contacts became publicly known. Or recognise that slow dinners in a fast-moving world, even if you leave your slingshot at the door, are not a good idea.

The right thing

Enjoying private meetings with a bidder when a procurement process is under way is not acceptable practice for any politician, no matter how engaging and innocent the company might be. Even people with a mere passing knowledge of business and political propriety know that. We may not be master guerillas or anything like that, but we know the right thing to do in these circumstances.

There will always be times when interested parties meet. The book, for example, has a very nice photograph from September 2017 when Naughten and McCourt attended the Ballinasloe launch of a joint venture to bring high-speed broadband to homes and businesses in the west of Ireland.

They certainly seemed to be getting on like a house on fire.

“Enjoy having a laugh after a day of hard-fought negotiation,” writes McCourt. “This is a typical Irish trait I’ve inherited – that we can be tough, but still enjoy a laugh together when the work is done, with no hard feelings.”

He namechecks the two men in the photo with him – Naughten and SSE Ireland’s manager director Stephen Wheeler. “Even though we’re in the process of incredibly tough negotiations, we always admire their fair, forward-thinking and ambitious approach to change-making.”

The Irish-American billionaire includes one of his mother’s favourite sayings: “No matter what happens in your life, remember someone has it worse. Try, as hard as it seems, to always accept what has happened. Put one foot in front of the other and move forward, always forward.”

It’s advice that he might pass on to his acquaintance, Denis, who has lost his Cabinet seat.

When invited to dine with McCourt, the Minister should have paid heed to one of the entrepreneur’s bullet points of wisdom: “Know when to say ‘no’ and walk away.”

He should have done the same when Minister of State Pat Breen asked Roscommon-based Naughten if he would like to go to dinner (purely social) in the Co Clare home of his neighbour, the communications mogul. Breen, who has pointed out that the broadband programme does not fall within his ministerial remit, asked on David McCourt’s behalf.

As everybody knows, Pat is Minister of State with responsibility for Trade, Employment, Business, EU Digital Single Market and Data Protection.

With no responsibility for broadband and therefore no responsibility for looking at a situation and thinking it would be awfully stupid to encourage the Minister for Communications to be the private dinner guest of the man bidding for over €500 million worth of work from his department.

Maybe Pat thought he was acting like a revolutionary by passing on the invitation. Maybe Denis wasn’t thinking with both the left and right sides of his brain when he accepted it.

Total recall

When word emerged of one dinner between the minister and the magnate, followed by a grudging trickle of information confirming that Naughten facilitated lunch in Leinster House for McCourt, things didn’t look too good for the politician.

But when the Taoiseach demanded the full story, this precipitated Denis’s version of Total Rethink, which brought on Total Recall.

On foot of this he was asked to reconsider his position by Leo Varadkar. Ironically, and to his credit, Denis didn’t make a meal of it and quickly stepped down from his Cabinet post. Under the circumstances, the Taoiseach had no other course of action.

But these guys. They’re supposed to be smart. Ministers, billionaires. Men of the world.

And while the contacts between them were purely social and they were all thinking in the nation’s interest by moving things along, were they not mindful of the Moriarty tribunal and the part personal contacts played in that unrelated communications bonanza?

Just what were they thinking?

Here’s another nugget from the book’s bullets of wisdom: “If you take care of the people that matter they will take care of you.”

A true and sound piece of advice, but easily misinterpreted.

And that is why the well-intentioned minister and the convivial billionaire should have dined apart.

The 'Unladylike' Land League

Belated well done to Lucy Keaveney, the woman behind the recent restoration of the grave of Anna Parnell in Devon. Lucy, from Meath, is co-founder of the Countess Markievicz School, which was set up seven years ago to encourage more participation by women in public and political life.

Anna Parnell, along with Michael Davitt and her much more famous brother Charles Stewart Parnell, was involved in the formation of the Land League in the late 1880s. She then became leader of the Ladies’ Land League, the first mainstream political movement formed by Irish women. At its height it had 500 branches and thousands of members.

“Members collated information on landlords, the size of farm holdings, conditions of tenure, size of family, rent paid and possible threat of eviction,” says Lucy. “All this information was contained centrally in a large register known as The Book of Kells.”

They also supported evicted families, helping to resist evictions and building huts to house families when they failed.

The authorities considered them irritants and many in society condemned their actions as unladylike. When the male leaders of the Land League were imprisoned, the women continued the struggle, garnering much publicity. When they were released, her brother Charles froze the accounts of the Ladies’ Land League and dismissed the work they had done in his absence.

Anna left the country and went to live in England. She drowned in 1911 while swimming at Ilfracombe in Devon. The local newspaper reported that seven people attended her funeral. There were no relatives present. Her sister Theodosia later erected a headstone, and in 1912 the Parnell Society placed a plaque on the headstone using one of Anna’s quotes.

Last month the Irish Ambassador to the UK, Adrian O’Neill; and National Women’s Council of Ireland chairwoman Ellen O’Malley Dunlop were among a group of historians and local dignatories who gathered to pay tribute at her graveside, newly restored with funds from the Irish Government.

“Anna is such an important person from our past that I think the State owes it to her to provide support to maintain it,” said Lucy Keaveney, who travelled to Ilfracombe in 2013 with her husband where they located the grave after a three-hour search.

She says the grave itself is still in need of substantial, professional work. In this special centenary year for Irish women in public life, it shouldn’t take another 107 years to get the job done.

Flanagan's serious misstep

As party leaders circle each other in a “who blinks first” election dance, one senior politician is desperately hoping the balloon won’t go up before the end of the year.

Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan is not relishing the prospect of going on the hustings while on crutches.

He was spotted hobbling around Luxembourg on Friday. He was in the city for the Justice and Home Affairs Council and won’t have been cheered by the election posters all around the place – they go the polls on Sunday.

Charlie has two broken toes. But while he may be a politician, in this instance, he didn’t shoot himself in the foot. He tumbled down the stairs. “Multi-tasking while descending steps is not something I will ever recommend,” he said when he limped home to Laois-Offaly.

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