The downfall of Sir Anthony O’Reilly into insolvency has many of the elements of Greek tragedy, along with some farce as well as good old German/Irish schadenfreude.
At age 78 O’Reilly should be enjoying elder statesman status, given his long and phenomenally successful career. He was a sports legend at rugby. He ran one of America’s biggest corporations at Heinz, and he simultaneously accumulated one of the biggest newspaper empires through Independent News & Media, which he bought for a song, and controlled Waterford Crystal, one of the great brands. He was co-founder of the American Ireland Fund, perhaps his greatest legacy.
All that has faded now. He is apparently considering declaring bankruptcy in the Bahamas, where he is now domiciled.
He is caught in a gordian knot of spiraling debt with some newspaper reports saying he owes a quarter billion dollars. His assets, including his beloved Castlemartin estate in Kildare, are on the block. He is broke.
It is safe to say there will be many who will not be overly perturbed about his harsh financial circumstances.
O’Reilly bluntly used his newspaper chain as a weapon against rivals until he met one, Denis O’Brien, he could not overcome.
During the peace process he allowed the most appalling assaults against John Hume, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning politician, for daring to seek compromise and common ground with Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams.
His chief instrument was columnist Eoghan Harris who laid out the newspaper’s priority. He wrote, "If we persist with the peace process it will end with sectarian slaughter in the North, with bombs in Dublin, Cork and Galway, and with the ruthless reign by provisional gangs over the ghettos of Dublin. The only way to avoid this abyss is to cut the cord to John Hume".
They did their level best to level Hume. On one notorious weekend there were seven separate assaults against Hume in the Sunday Independent, as vicious a piling on as I have ever seen in journalism.
I remember speaking to Hume about it soon after and finding him uncomprehending and distraught over the viciousness of the repeated assaults. To Hume's eternal credit he persevered even after a physical collapse and being rushed to hospital, a breakdown caused in large part by the vilification.
We are all peace processors now but Tony O’Reilly’s newspaper did its damndest to try and stop that process at inception and right up until the formation of the power-sharing government.
It is hard to comprehend how dreadful the Sunday Independent was back then. It was the major media organ in a small state. Week after week it hammered at proponents of the peace process seeking to undermine and damage it. O’Reilly can never deny that reality.
To suggest, as some did, that O’Reilly knew nothing of the planned assaults is ludicrous. He was as hands-on a media proprietor as there was in the world. His aim was always to use his newspapers to advance his own agenda, ruthlessly and with deliberate intent. Bullying those who did not accept the Sunday Independent world-view was a given. Targets were chosen and slammed at every turn with no attempt at balance.
What the O’Reilly agenda was became clearer when he accepted a full knighthood from the Queen. He was henceforth to be known as Sir Anthony. It was all faintly ludicrous and the first public example that O’Reilly might be losing the run of himself.
The long running battle with Denis O’Brien, a younger generation business leader who was also targeted by O’Reilly’s newspapers, was his biggest mistake however. He was simply outmaneuvered at every stage by a smarter opponent and lost control of the Independent group.
Suddenly, all that glittered was tin not gold. The Waterford Crystal investment, allegedly in the $500 million range, proved a costly mistake as did many other vehicles.
Hence, the extraordinary scenes last week as O’Reilly’s lawyers desperately sought to bargain with a judge, begging for more time to consolidate his debts. They failed.
In the end his spectacular career has flamed out in failure. He is lucky at least that his former newspaper and other media outlets are not letting loose with the bile that his publications used against so many. For a man who was so talented and so successful he carried an enormous grudge.
I have no sympathy for the bank now relentlessly pursuing him, despite the fact that not too long ago that same bank needed Irish taxpayer’s money to get bailed out. But when the peace process which has saved thousands of lives was in formation Tony O’Reilly ran the newspaper chain that tried its damndest to snuff it out. That will be his legacy too.
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