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Denis O’Brien, a billionaire with a mission not just to make money-- Irish businessman praised by Clinton, NY Times, seeks to make a difference

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Denis O'Brien (Credit: Forbes)

The O’Reilly family’s stranglehold on most of Irish journalism is over and that can only be good.

I’m delighted that businessman Denis O’Brien, much admired here in America, is taking over effectively as the chief shareholder of Ireland’s largest newspaper group, Independent News and Media.

I know O’Brien and consider him as one of the great business talents to emerge from Ireland in the past half century.

He is a straight talker, and is one of the few who avoided the calamity of believing their own propaganda, that they walked on water, based on nothing more than a property bubble and a backslapping media.

I remember discussing the issue of the plight of the Irish undocumented with him a few years back and he cast his mind back to the time he lived in the US as a penniless student and the problems he encountered then.

He asked what he could do to help on the Irish undocumented and he has done so ever since.

He chaired the 2003 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Ireland. It was the first time the Summer Games were staged outside the US with teams from 160 countries and over 30,000 volunteers. The 2003 Summer Games were the most successful in the history of the Special Olympics.

He also remains very active in Concern where he serves on the board of the international charity.

Denis O’Brien will bring a very different set of values to the newspaper world in my opinion.

He is a creator not a destroyer, who has pumped tens of millions of his own funds into Haiti and other impoverished countries where his company Digicel does business.

As The New York Times recently reported, he built 50 new schools in Haiti since the massive earthquake and has plans for 80 more. He is not involved in such work just for the photo-op, a fact he made clear to the Times.

“It’s all about project management,” Mr. O’Brien (53) said in an interview at Digicel’s offices there.  “Everyone’s on hand for the photo op, but where are the 100 houses that were promised after the
cameras are gone? I’m the guy who’s going to count them.”

Bill Clinton is another person deeply appreciative of what O’Brien has done in Haiti

“What is striking is how deeply he has embedded his Haiti work into both his business and personal life,” Clinton told the New York Times.

“Because he cares so much, it’s easier for him to motivate and hold accountable other network members.”

Back home in Ireland, as he’s a big fish in a small pond, O’Brien causes controversy because he is outspoken and direct.

He first came to prominence when he acquired the second Irish cell phone license in controversial fashion. It was a time when a Wild West atmosphere prevailed in Ireland with unregulated political and financial dealing.

O’Brien saw his chance and he took it. He turned the license into a hugely successful venture, unlike those who ended up with Eircom, the main mobile license, and bankrupted it.

O’Brien sold ESAT Digicel for $3 billion and created thousands of jobs since. O’Brien has used his money wisely. He has exercised major philanthropy and injected funds into University College Dublin and other campuses.

Many crocodile tears are being shed this past week over the issue of media monopoly because he also owns radio stations.

Yet when Sir Anthony O’Reilly owned the Irish Independent, the Sunday Independent, the Sunday World, the Evening Herald, the Irish Daily Star, the Belfast Telegraph and Sunday Life, 13 local newspapers and also one of the largest newspaper and magazine distribution agencies, Newspread, and several of the largest print works on the island, those same critics hardly offered a bleat of criticism.

O’Brien has his critics and his drawbacks but he is a fundamentally decent man, trying to do good.

On that I’d bet my bottom dollar.

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