Is there no end to Denis O’Brien’s intervention in Irish sport?
Something doesn’t feel right about billionaire chipping in to bring Johnny Sexton home
Denis O’Brien: ‘The craic (in soccer) is just great. The people you meet. The slagging is lightning. The same kind of fun as rugby but different.’ Photograph: Matt Kavanagh
Wouldn’t we all do it, if we could? Is there a sports fan alive who heard that Denis O’Brien is chipping in to bring Johnny Sexton back from France and didn’t think that’s exactly what they’d do if they were a billionaire? Not the Sexton thing specifically, but a version of it?
You wake up in the morning the world’s 271st richest person, worth by common estimates just a shade over €4.1 billion. The list of things for you to do with that money is infinite but somewhere on it, anyone with an interest in sport is going to have their eye taken with throwing a crumb or two the way of your favourite teams. And if backing those teams won you favour, how bad?
And so when the Ireland cricket team unexpectedly make it through to the Super 8 round of the 2007 World Cup – a World Cup in which you already sponsor the cricket-mad host nation the West Indies where you have significant business interests – of course you’re going to send what the BBC described at the time as “a £100,000 donation to help ease their financial burden”.
And when you’re watching the Ireland soccer team get tanked (again) and Eddie Jordan is sitting beside you egging you on, sure why wouldn’t you ring up John Delaney and offer a dig-out with the salary for a new manager. As O’Brien himself recently said about soccer, “The craic is just great. The people you meet. The slagging is lightning. The same kind of fun as rugby but different.”
All a bit of fun
This is the thing. It’s all a bit of fun. Making money is a serious business, spending it is supposed to be enjoyable. So of course you’re going to step up when Leinster need a bit of help bringing Ireland’s poster boy home. It’d be rude not to.
Rude is relative, though. Denis O’Brien doesn’t like the term “tax exile”. Or at least he doesn’t like it being attached to him. In court last year during his libel case against the Daily Mail, he argued the toss over what a tax exile was with Oisín Quinn, counsel for the newspaper, and took issue with being described as such. Vincent Browne related the exchange in The Irish Times after the trial.
DO’B: “I’m not a tax exile, Mr Quinn. And what was described is actually libellous. A tax exile is someone who doesn’t pay their taxes. As I described to you this morning, I paid all my taxes in Ireland, all PAYE. And I would be one of the larger taxpayers in the country at this time.”
OQ: “A tax exile, Mr O’Brien, is someone who is moved offshore to reduce their tax liability. You live in a flat in Malta, away from your family, to reduce your tax. That is a tax exile.”
DO’B: “No, a tax exile, Mr Quinn, technically is somebody who went away not to pay income tax in Ireland. I pay income tax in Ireland. Thank you.”
Also in his evidence that day, O’Brien said the following: “I do not work in Ireland. I have some business here but 95 per cent of my businesses are scattered around the world.”
As Browne went on to point out, living outside the country has meant O’Brien never having to pay capital gains tax on the €317 million he made out of the sale of Esat to BT in 2000. That’s €63 million, give or take, that the exchequer never saw.
Maybe we would all do it, maybe we wouldn’t. But that’s not how a country works. Most of us don’t get to pick and choose where we pay our tax.
It obviously isn’t wrong for Irish sport – or sport anywhere – to accept donations from O’Brien or any other business. Bank Of Ireland pitches in 10 per cent of Jamie Heaslip’s annual stipend. David Shubotham, a stockbroker most people have never heard of, gave a reported €2.2 million towards the building of Leinster’s new campus in UCD. Maybe that’s just reality in professional sport.
But that doesn’t mean it feels right. We all know, for example, that the disconnect between the Irish soccer team and its public predates O’Brien’s involvement. But doesn’t the fact that two successive managers and their assistants have had their salaries bumped at the whim of O’Brien make that gap just seem wider than ever now? It is difficult to see yourself reflected in a national team that on a certain level is just a billionaire’s plaything.
Probably none of this matters. Sexton will come home and when he plays his first game for Leinster, nobody watching will be thinking of Denis O’Brien. Or if they are, at least they’ll be thinking of him fondly.