Denis O’Brien, Digicel CEO and founder and leading Irish businessman full speech from Oct 21 event at Cambridge University.
Excellency’s, Ladies and Gentlemen
I’m delighted to participate in this annual lecture series on modern Irish history. Thank you Eugenio for your invitation.
As you probably know, the series was initiated in honour of the late Brian Lenihan, a Cambridge graduate.
The Lenihan family were central to Irish political life for over half a century. Both Brian Lenihan Jnr and his father Brian Senior both made a huge contribution to modern Ireland in different ways and particularly at times when our country faced major problems. As Deputy Prime Minister Brian Snr. was a strong advocate of social justice and he laid much of the groundwork, which ultimately led to the momentous 1997 Good Friday Agreement. This brought about a resolution to decades of conflict in Northern Ireland. His son, Brian Jnr., was Minister for Finance at the time of the global financial crisis and displayed incredible bravery in carrying out his Government duties while facing a terminal illness, which claimed his life at 52. I had the privilege of knowing both of them personally and witnessed their determination to contribute to a better Ireland.
I’ve chosen to talk to you this evening about ‘’Ireland and its role in the developing world’’.
Ireland, for the most part, wears its contribution to the developing world as a badge of honour. However, I believe I’m justified in saying that the history books don’t do it justice when you look at the contribution in its totality.
I grew up with an avid interest in the developing world. My mother was a protestant and a staunch unionist from Co. Armagh in Northern Ireland. My mother was a serial protestor right up until she died, over a year ago.
As a young boy, I was brought down to the US Embassy to join protests against American Foreign Policy in
Central America. And as if to ensure a balanced approach against two major global powers, she also brought me to the Russian Embassy to draw attention to the plight of the Chechens.
Right to her last gasp, she detested De Valera and only listened to BBC Radio 4 and read the Guardian.
My father was a Catholic businessman who sold equine nutrition products all over the world. He used to tell us all the stories from his trips on his return home. He travelled everywhere from Trinidad to Korea, from Australia to Japan.
He told me about the deals he did, the problems he had in getting his customers to pay him and every detail about what was going on in his business.
Perhaps more importantly, he gave me a personal one on one education in the world of business and I’m forever grateful for that. What he also gave me was an appreciation of the outside world, of the developing world, of the opportunities that existed elsewhere. It was from him that I inherited the eagerness to travel and explore business opportunities outside of Ireland.
I learned about the world from my parents – the world of justice and injustice…. the world of business and
politics and… the world of right and wrong. Not surprisingly I suppose, I developed an interest in history to find out what had happened in the past…….and why.
History is such a very important subject because it gives everyone – children and adults - a context to the world in which we live and an insight into how events moulded thinking…..attitudes…..actions… AND prejudices.
Unfortunately, history is sometimes taught through a blurred lens. As a result, not only does it skew the reality but also it warps reactions. This happens in every country.
Let me give you an example, British school children learnt how William Wilberforce helped bring about the end of slavery. But have they ever been told about the gargantuan roles played by Daniel O’Connell or Lord Sligo in ending slavery? …….I don’t think so.
I believe if you examine the emergence of modern Ireland – the social and economic progress AND the role Ireland plays in all corners of the world – you can trace it back to several landmark events from the 18th and the 19th centuries.
In Ireland in the 18th century there was a system of schooling called ‘hedge schools.’ They were so called because they literally took place on hedges along pathways and dirt tracks. They were also illegal. Great Britain outlawed education for Catholic and Presbyterian children. They were set up covertly all over the country to provide the basics of primary education to children of ‘non-conforming faiths.’ Under penal laws, only schools for the Anglican faith were allowed. The thinking was that it would be easier to rule and govern a nation of illiterates!
In the 19th century, the Irish Famine, which lasted from 1845 to 1849, claimed the lives of over one million people, at a time when the country was a net exporter of food. Starving small farmers and their families were expected to pack the potato and grain harvest for shipping to England while they starved. In the space of a few years over 2 million people emigrated to the United States and to the UK to find a better life. This left the Irish people with a will and determination to ensure no other nation would suffer such degradation and inhumanity.
The effect of the Famine on Ireland’s psyche…parents and children dying on the side or the road…survivors
emigrating never to return …is something that is alive for many people to this day. This is particularly true in rural parts of Ireland. Nearly all those who left Ireland never worked on the land again.
They associated farming with the Famine and instead they became manual labourers, building railways and working in factories. These immigrants realised that education would ultimately see their children and their grandchildren have better lives.
A minute ago I mentioned Daniel O’Connell, over 200 years before Black Lives Matter, Daniel O’Connell was lecturing in America on the evils of slavery. You can
imagine how popular he was in the Deep South when he said:
“Slavery is a crime, a high crime against Heaven…..and its annihilation ought not to be postponed.”
O’Connell’s message that all lives matter inspired famous black abolitionists such as Frederick Douglas on his own political developments in America. Coincidentally, Douglas was General Counsel to Haiti – the first black republic in the world.
Back in Ireland O’Connell became known as “The Liberator” because he mobilised the predominantly
Catholic population – living in abject poverty as tenant farmers – and secured what was known as Catholic Emancipation. This involved the lifting of restrictions on Roman Catholics, including the owning of land, the right to inherit land and also gave voting rights to Catholics.
The Anglo Irish Church of Ireland community was led by Lord Sligo. He was a passionate advocate of Catholic Emancipation and legal reform in Ireland during the 19th century and through his action as a plantation owner, he is widely acknowledged as bringing about the end of slavery in Jamaica. The Anglo Irish community played a huge role in the abolition of slavery.
On his appointment as Governor General of Jamaica in 1834, Lord Sligo was the first plantation owner to initiate a wage system for black workers on his plantations and later, after emancipation, to divide his lands into small farms which were leased to the former slaves.
One of his published pamphlets “Jamaica Under the Apprenticeship” outlined the atrocities of slavery as he saw them and it influenced the “Great Debate” on Emancipation held in the British parliament in 1838 resulting in the immediate emancipation in the same year.
Lord Sligo earned an honoured and respected place in the history of Jamaica, where he is still acknowledged as “Champion of the Slaves” and where Sligoville, the first free slave village in the world, is named in his honour.
I have spent the last 20 years visiting the Caribbean a couple of times a month and I can tell you there is a deep affinity for Ireland in Jamaica, Barbados, Montserrat and many other Caribbean islands. Many Irish people were transported to these countries particularly from the west of Ireland. They left Ireland as individuals and arrived as indentured servants.
Irish indentured servants were treated similar to 11 million African slaves that were shipped to the Caribbean. When I am in meetings in Kingston Jamaica and I close my eyes and listen to everybody and the words they use and their accents, I sometimes think I could be back in the west of Ireland.
Having helped to contribute to the campaign to abolish slavery, a new undertaking was started by Irish missionaries.
These missionaries who were both Catholic and Protestant later morphed into NGOs when vocations declined. They built schools in some of the most
impoverished countries in the world and introduced education in the remotest places in the world particularly in Africa. They were responsible for boys and girls realising their potential and without that education African leaders such as Presidents Kaunda, Nyerere and Museveni would never have achieved high office in their countries.
Irish missionaries educated generations of “constructive trouble makers” in former colonies and future civil servants.
I am lucky as my work takes me all over the world meeting governments. Nearly the first words I hear from
Civil Servants and political leaders is “I was taught by a nun or a priest from Ireland”. And they go on to give the name of the teacher and elaborate just how their lives were bettered and moulded to achieve their goals. Let me tell you a little story. In 2006 I was meeting the Prime Minister of Samoa for breakfast and to start negotiations on a telecoms license. The meeting was going really badly and, in a change of tack, I asked him whether he had ever been to Ireland to which he replied “I know everything about Ireland as I was educated by the Marist Brothers in St. Paul’s College, Auckland”. With that he broke into a song and sang ‘The Foggy Dew’.
In 1921, Ireland won its independence and the Irish Free State came into effect. When that happened Ireland really went out swinging into the world. ..Instead of working through missionaries and individuals we now acted as an independent sovereign state….with even greater influence. We joined the League of Nations, the leading multilateral institution at the time engaged on international peace and security.
We played a strong part in its evolution, chairing the Assembly during the Abyssinia crisis and we helped guide the League through to its transition into the United Nations.
In the twenty years after Ireland joined the United Nations in 1955, the developing world dominated its agenda.
Our relations with Africa have long formed a core strand of Ireland’s foreign policy. Last year marked the sixtieth anniversary of Ireland’s diplomatic presence on the continent, with the opening of a Consulate in Nigeria in 1960, followed a year later by a full Embassy.
The year 1960 also marked the first deployment of Irish Defence Forces as UN Peacekeepers in Africa, with Irish troops serving in the Congo in the following years.
Over the years, Irish peacekeepers have served with distinction across the continent, including in Namibia, Somalia, Liberia and Chad.
1960 also saw the arrival of Africa’s most prominent politicians, the Ghanaian Prime Minister Nkrumah to Ireland. In his speech addressing the United Nations Association in Dublin he paid a powerful tribute in which he declared:
“Those Irish leaders of the last century I realised that the struggle of Ireland for independence was not the struggle of one country alone, but part of a world movement for freedom.”
Nkrumah’s visit offered a compelling snapshot of Ireland’s world role.
In the decades that followed, in supporting African nations, we acted bilaterally through the provision of technical and financial assistance and, multilaterally through the UN, vigorously supporting the principle of self-determination from the outset of our membership in 1955.
When growing African radicalism made Ireland’s role difficult to sustain, Irish missionaries, peacekeepers, NGOs, and anti-apartheid campaigners helped to re-
invent the Irish government's position, to become the ‘moral conscience’ of the European Community.
Although we are a small nation, we sit at the highest table and we speak with a clear voice.
Our experience of getting from under the heels of colonialism helped us take this seat …and it shows how small nations can play important roles because of their affinity with the oppressed.
In 2015, Ireland played a central role in the development of the Sustainable Development Goals. It was a landmark year in international cooperation towards a sustainable world.
We are immensely proud of the enormous contribution that Ireland’s development cooperation programme has made to the sustainable development of Africa, Asia, South America and the Caribbean over the last 50 years.
In 2019, Ireland was among the top 20 donors to UN- coordinated humanitarian responses.
ODI, the independent global think tank that works to inspire people to act on injustice and inequality, found
Ireland “to be the most principled aid donor” since their rankings began.
Today, our commitment to these regions is stronger than it has ever been.
Our presence on the African continent has expanded to twelve Embassies from Cairo to Pretoria.
Irish Defence Forces are currently deployed to four UN crisis management and peace support operations around the world including Congo, Mali, Kosovo and Lebanon.
Our most recent achievement was being elected as a member of the UN Security Council for 2021-2022 plus holding the role of president for the month of September.
A large proportion of the council’s work is focused on Africa and the Middle East. These are longstanding priority areas of Ireland’s foreign policy and points to the influence, respect and reputation Ireland has on the world stage.
I have an enormous sense of pride in our long history of missionary work and what it has brought to communities all around the world. I have seen their work and made great friendships with missionaries I have met in so many countries.
When people think about missionaries, they often associate them with the 19th century, but their contribution and reach have remained strong right up to today.
Irish nuns and priests played a particularly important role in stimulating world outcry to the bloody Nigerian civil war when 1 million died. The Finucane brothers, both priests - Fr. Aengus and Fr. Jack - founded Concern in Nigeria and brought the plight of the Biafran and Igbo people to the world’s attention during the 1967-1970
civil war. To this day Concern Worldwide is Ireland’s largest aid and humanitarian agency.
Irish missionaries lobbied the Irish government to start providing aid to the developing world in 1960 with a scheme entitled ‘assistance for newly-independent African countries’. It turned out a hugely successful programme.
Irish Aid was founded in 1974 and concentrates its funding on sub Saharan Africa to help reduce poverty and hunger. Other areas of focus include climate change, gender equality and strengthening governance.
The Irish Missionaries also galvanised the moral revulsion at the excesses of apartheid, the same Christian concerns translated into popular support for the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement (IAAM) led by Kadar Asmal.
Missionaries were responsible for the largest expressions of solidarity with the anti-Apartheid movement. They succeeded in persuading the Irish Government to cancel plans to further promote trade with South Africa.
When I was growing up Mary Manning and the Dunnes Stores workers were my heroes. Dunnes was the largest Irish owned supermarket chain at the time.
The workers refused to handle Outspan oranges and other imported fruit from South Africa and went on strike. It was a sensation in Ireland and grabbed headlines around the world. My mother, in solidarity with the workers, stopped shopping in Dunnes. Her protest went on for over 3 decades!
The Irish Government caved in to relentless pressure because the public displayed their solidarity with the brave workers and banned the importation of South African fruit produce.
Irish people were some of the most vociferous supporters of the anti-apartheid movement and when Nelson Mandela was freed he came to Dublin and he thanked Mary Manning and the Dunne Stores workers. He also thanked the Irish people for their unconditional support of the anti-apartheid movement.
Although I work in the business world and I meet lots of business people, many of whom are boring, I have infinitely greater admiration for people who rattle cages and trust me, Ireland has plenty of them.
In particular, I think of Bono, famous for his life Album ‘Rattle and Hum’ and also the people behind the Jubilee 2000 debt forgiveness campaign. Bono isn’t just content to be part of one of the most famous rock bands in the world. He is an activist on all fronts, including the Red Campaign which he co-founded with Bobby Shriver to help eliminate HIV-AIDS in 8 African countries.
He was one of the prime movers in The Jubilee 2000 Debt Forgiveness Coalition. Ultimately they succeeded against all odds in the cancelling of $100 billion of debt owed by 35 of the poorest countries in the world.
I have to give credit to the UK, particularly Ann Pettifor, Martin Dent and Bill Peters, Gordon Brown and the Church of England who as well as Bono provided the leadership and also the political resolve in supporting the debt reduction campaign.
This has had a profound effect on these 35 countries, as suddenly they were able to invest in education and health instead of exorbitant interest payments to foreign creditors.
An unsung rattler of cages would be Gena Heraty. She left Mayo at the age of 28 and went to Haiti. She runs
an orphanage up in the mountains outside Port au Prince for more than 100 profoundly disabled children as well as caring for up to 80 out-patients a day. If you ever want to see living saints, go to Haiti, visit Gena and other aid workers working in the most appalling conditions. And yet they will greet you with a wondrous smile. After I visit Gena any of my problems that I Have in hand seem totally insignificant.
I also think of people who are not well known. People like Fr. John Glynn, a dear friend, who was sent as a missionary priest to the ironically called island of New Ireland…..in Papua New Guinea in 1968 fresh out of a seminary. He started as a teacher but after a few
years, because of his liberal views, he was disowned by the local catholic Bishop. That doubled his resolve to continue his work.
Eventually, a new Bishop recognised his contribution to his community and welcomed him back. He works up to 24 hours a day in Port Moresby with homeless women and children. Fr. John wrote to me last week and told me he is now worried because of failing eye sight that he can’t drive the van. Did I forget to tell you that he is in his 86th year?
I want to change tack here and talk about slavery and colonialism. This is not an Irish man having a rant about Great Britain but I believe very strongly that there is unfinished business in the former colonial world that needs to be addressed….. in particular by the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Holland, Spain and Portugal. Ingrained in all former colonial countries is a silent but deep-rooted resentment toward their former colonists. Many of them depend on trade and tourism from their former rulers.
Individually they know they cannot campaign for reparations but together they can. In 2013 CARICOM, which represents the Heads of Government in the
Caribbean, adopted a unanimous and historic plan to launch a reparations programme against the governments of several European states on behalf of 15 million indigenous people of the Caribbean and for crimes against humanity committed against black or African people of the Caribbean.
In the case of the UK, in 1834 a payment of £47 million was paid out in two tranches……£20m in a cash payment to the former slave masters and……£27m in free labour to be provided by the newly freed slaves. They were obliged to give their labour for an ‘apprenticeship’ period of 6 years.
This payment of £47m was the equivalent of a staggering £178 billion in today’s money. Indeed the sum was so large – some 40% of the annual budget of the British Government – that the said British Government borrowed and issued bonds to pay off the ‘compensation’ that they extended to the slave masters.
The last remaining payments on these bonds were made by the British Government on those slave owners’ compensations bond in 2015, a mere six years ago.
Anybody arguing today against reparations can’t say that we’re going back into ancient history. It’s worth noting that the £178 billion, payable to the slave
owners, was for just one single generation of enslaved Africans. It had nothing to do with the multiple generations of enslaved Africans who were worked to death on the plantations of the Caribbean for 225 years. Neither the freed slaves or their ancestors received a penny in compensation.
I believe Ireland can be an honest broker in bringing together the former colonists and these new independent states that suffered the sheer inhumanity of slavery. Many of the architects of the Good Friday agreement could act as honest brokers.
The Prime Minister of Barbados, Mia Mottley, has long been a strong advocate of reparations to be paid to former slave colonies. She is an extraordinarily talented leader with great balance and vision. She has argued for a Marshall Plan. Britain needs to fess up and write the final chapter about colonisation with the proper ink of intent.
Such an initiative could be Boris Johnston’s Churchillian moment. Other countries like France, Belgium Spain and Portugal can make up for their historic bad deeds. A monetary amount should be agreed and paid over 20 years to all Caribbean former colonies. There is a surprisingly good template as a precedent for doing this.
In the 70’s and 80’s the European Union significantly expanded its membership. Wealthy European Union countries funded less well-off countries through the EU Regional Development Fund over several decades. This resulted in the economic equalisation of Europe.
Ironically, and to their credit, the well-developed countries like Great Britain, France, Belgium and Holland rose to the European Development challenge resulting in an increase in living standards for less well- off member states.
If you look at the Caribbean today nearly all these former colonies are underdeveloped. When they became independent nations they had little or no investment or financial reserves. This has had the effect of stunting social and economic development at great cost to their people.
Debt to GDP in Jamaica is approx. 100 %. With proper long-term investment in third level education and new industries in the right sectors, Jamaica could become a developed economy. The same could apply to all the other islands in the Caribbean. There would need to be proper governance of these development funds but the rules could copied be from the EU handbook. In addition, the IMF and the World Bank could also play an important oversight role.
It is the elephant in the room at any meeting between developing countries and the old colonial powers.
There is justification for this radical approach. For centuries, foreign governments and private companies have made huge profits from these regions while destroying their environments and mistreating their people without making any amends.
One of the primary ways that Europe and the West became rich was through the slave trade.
The backdrop for this radical approach is because for centuries, foreign governments and private companies made huge profits from these colonies while destroying their environment and mistreating people without making any amends.
Many of the beautiful arches, parks and buildings in Europe were erected from the revenues of the slave trade.
But the underdevelopment and structural inefficiencies of these regions today is, in many instances the trail and the legacy of the colonial extractive experiment.
The poverty that these countries inherited from the British and other European powers at the time of independence, meant that these regions did not have the stability to move to the next level of growth while at the same time carrying large national debts.
France has a major role to play. Haiti, after liberation from the French in 1804, was submitted to paying the equivalent of $21 billion in compensation to former slave owners. This debt was paid off by the 1950s. It was an amount so large, it is the main reason Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world. Haiti paid out most
of its government financial resources to satisfy a debt that should not have existed in the first place.
While trying to build a new nation without proper government structures, it was left it with the weakest governance capacity in the Caribbean . Today, Haiti’s health service has budget of $ 73 million to care for the health of 11 m people. Just think of the abhorrent injustice of that!
I have grown tired of the lazy analysis of Haiti as a totally hopeless and corrupt country. The Haitian are among the most talented and hard working people in the world.
When people approach me on the street in Port au Prince they are looking for a job not a handout.
First and foremost, they need an apology from France and an acknowledgement that a wrong was done. This is about admitting the privilege which history brought on one group of people by the dehumanisation and oppression of others.
Many people will say that multinationals, like my company Digicel, are new colonialists. Yes its’s true we make profits from our operations in countries like Haiti however, as the largest foreign direct investor in Haiti, we have a responsibility and a major role in the development of the country. We make profit in Haiti and happily pay corporation tax, sales tax and all other taxes.
We don’t use transfer pricing to avoid tax. Our objective is to provide 4G mobile services and high-speed internet access to the whole population, which will contribute to economic development. In parallel, we have 60,000 children attending 187 modern schools that we have built.
We must repair the cultural and psychological damage. The destruction and theft of one’s patrimony has an extremely pernicious effect on people’s psyche.
Reparations for all these countries now would allow them to move to the next level, with respect to education, healthcare, access to capital investment and proper housing.
The new Colonisers are the Big Tech Companies, primarily Facebook.
All over the world, democracy is under threat from Facebook. Make no mistake about it Facebook is allowing its platform to facilitate anarchy. The revelations by Cambridge Analytica and how Facebook
allowed them to use the private data of millions of people to influence elections is incredibly sinister.
In recent times there have been a number of books that have shone a revealing light on Facebook’s covert practices. Three weeks ago Frances Haugen, a former senior executive with Facebook and a whistle-blower, appeared before a US Congressional Committee and gave insights to Facebook that had never been heard before. What we are now witnessing has all the hallmarks of the opening of a Pandora’s Box. And once the lid lifts…it will never be replaced.
The current Facebook saga reminds me of what Germany experienced with creeping authoritarianism which few people called out but so bluntly described in the book “In the Garden of the Beasts”.
Facebook has become nearly too big to challenge. No single Government can expect to rein them in on their own. The EU has called them out for their business practices but have only achieved modest changes to Facebooks use of private users data. It will need a coalition of like-minded governments to regulate Facebook. The US needs to lead the way and repeal Section 230 of the US Communications Decency Act. This would make Facebook responsible for content.
EU Competition Law needs to be used to conduct market reviews and enforce conditions on dominant undertakings. Facebook users should all be forced to register and no longer hide behind the cloak of anonymity.
From a purely business and financial point of view, Ireland is a pivotal partner of Facebook because of its tax laws and, regrettably, is complicit with the egregious practices Facebook operates under.
If you take the continent of Africa alone, Facebook generates the equivalent of one dollar per month per
Facebook user and generates billions in advertising revenue across 54 countries. It creates no employment and pays no sales tax, no VAT and no corporation tax. It is the most unbelievable and amoral business model one could ever imagine.
Furthermore, they don’t invest in the roll out of broadband in Africa where only 23 per cent of people have access to the internet.
Ireland, regrettably, has allowed itself to become Facebook’s laundrette for the biggest tax avoidance scheme in the world.
Obviously, I am proud of Ireland’s role in the developing world but this is a blot on our reputation. Facebook continues its role in the propagating hatred, racism and misinformation without any check.
Make no mistake about it, Facebook is as insidious as it is pernicious. It is time for the Irish Government, the EU and the United States to take action.
Finally, I think that one topic which needs to be front and central to the future of the world is…….philanthrocapitalism.
Philanthrocapitalism involves a market-based, capitalist for-profit approach to solving the world’s most important issues. ‘The Giving Pledge,’ a commitment founded by Bill and Melinda Gates for wealthy individuals to donate a portion of their wealth to a range of causes from improving global health to combating poverty. It has been supported by Chuck Feeney, an Irish-American philanthropist who has made over $5.5 billion in grants through his organisation, The Atlantic Philanthropies.
I believe philanthrocapitalism has the potential to be very powerful because it :
- drives problem solving as opposed to throwing money at a project
- adopts a ‘profit’ motive so that money can be reinvested –
- potentially is a source for very substantial funds
- can address the macro issues that are inhibiting developing countries…poverty, disaster relief, healthcare, education etc.
Let me finish by telling you how I see Ireland’s continued role in the developing world. We should continue to speak up fearlessly for the oppressed….from Palestine in Gaza to the remaining 39 detainees in Guantanamo
Bay. To play a role at UN level and provide peacekeeping and, through Irish Aid, continue to fund humanitarian support. I would hope we take on the colonial reparation campaign and change the way big tech behaves.