Ireland needs Irish America’s help more than ever says top business leader


O’D: Where does your philanthropic gene come from?

O’B: Everybody in Ireland has a philanthropic gene. As you were raised in Ireland in the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s. everybody was collecting for something. There was always a tin somewhere. If you go into a shop in Ireland there are always at least 3 tins – there could be 5 in the west of Ireland.

O’D: Some people worry that after Chuck Feeney’s foundation is paying itself down there will be nothing left . What’s left when Atlantic Philanthropy leave Ireland?

O’B: Philanthropy in Ireland is different to here. Here people do it for tax reasons and they do it because they feel good about it and it’s very public. It’s a big bang approach to philanthropy. In Ireland there are certain levels, like large-scale philanthropy, and then the next level down, but people don’t really advertise it.

They’re not interested in getting a photo with a big check for a university or whatever. I’m involved in fundraising for UCD. There’s an incredible amount of philanthropy that has supported UCD and the reforms that President Hugh Brady has made. It’s the same in Limerick, and it’s the same all over the country. So people say, “Oh, there isn’t much philanthropy in Ireland…” There is, but it’s quieter..

O’D: People in Ireland – some people here too – complain about all the negativity, they have the view that everything that is reported in the media is overly negative

O’B: Well, there’s a lot of hare coursing of people in Ireland. People in political life made mistakes, people in political life have made mistakes, but it’s just a constant, constant theme of chasing them, photographing them, following them, putting them on the front page. And that kind of negative journalism… I mean, look, these people made mistakes. But they are also human beings. Remember that. I thought chasing Brian Cowen to some university in California was an appalling thing to do.

He’s out of public life, he’s a private citizen. Leave him alone. That would be my view. So I think we need to stop it. And it’s mainly in the print media, and we need to move forward, Yes, in  all of this there should be a light shone on it, but we can’t keep regurgitating the same negative personal stuff–

O’D: What about the future of newspapers ?

O’B: Integrating a parallel online business to your existing print business, is where everybody has to go. We’re doing that in radio, we have to do it with newspapers in INM, from a very, very low base. So there’s a lot of effort to do that, which heretofore nobody believed in. The old board of INM just didn’t believe in the Internet, which is pretty startling when everything else is changing in the world.

It’s like saying oh, nobody is going to buy a smart phone tomorrow.

So that has to happen.

It’s going to be a very painful process for INM for the next 2 or 3 years. And it may not get here. I’m a realist to think that the business has so many challenges, mainly from a banking point of view, that it may not… we’re at the mercy of our banks at the moment because we’ve too much leverage and a declining profitability profile. We have a new CEO that everybody believes in, we have a new chairman in Leslie Buckley, and you couldn’t get a better person, but my God it’s going to be a huge struggle.

We’re late in to the field and now we’re doing what we should have done 6 or 7 years ago.

But look, it’s not all bad, and some great people work fort INM, it’s just how do you turn a whole ship around and motor as quick as you can?

O’D What needs to be done to improve Irish economic prospects?

O’B: What  we need is more investment, We need more investment in the SME side, with small businesses. How do you take medium sized businesses and turn them into multinationals? That is the key.

And how can you persuade Irish entrepreneurs to hang in there, come to Wall Street, raise some money and keep going. And how do you create the next multinational like Smurfit, Cappa, CRH, whoever the hell it is, out of Ireland? That’s the real trick here. And I know Enterprise Ireland, it kills them to see Irish companies being sold, having nurtured them, the whole team working with businesses.

And the other thing, if you take our relationship with the Unites States, we need to develop – and we’ll probably never develop the same relationship – but we need to develop a different kind of relationship towards China. And still I think that we need a minister for China. It could be a junior minister, but we need a minister for China and indeed a minister for the diaspora.

Denis O’Brien thank you