Former president Bill Clinton wrote in a September 2012 Time Magazine cover story that Irish businessman Denis O’Brien’s move to make cash transactions available for the poorest in the world via cell phones was the number one idea in changing the world.
The Time cover story featuring Clinton holding a globe is entitled “5 Ideas that are changing the World” and O’Brien’s idea was rated tops.
It must have been a heady moment for the Dublin-born O’Brien (57) who studied business at Boston College.
As a businessman O’Brien is high up the Forbes list. His net worth was estimated at $6.7 billion thanks mostly to his stock in his cell phone company Digicel. But it is as a philanthropist that he has become increasingly well known.
Also in 2012, The New York Times published a glowing front page report on O’Brien’s work in Haiti in which O’Brien was described as leading the international efforts to restore the economy there.
Forbes wrote, “O'Brien received the National Order of Honor and Merit from the Haitian president for his work helping Haiti recover from the 2010 earthquake. He funded the restoration of Haiti's century-old Iron Market with his own money, and has built 50 primary and secondary schools in the last 18 months.”
In Irish American circles he is best known for his staunch support of the American Ireland Fund and also the Third World charity Concern, where he is a leading benefactor.
O’Brien is Ireland’s leading philanthropist – but now also one of the most reviled figures there.
It is an extraordinary paradox that surrounds his business success – how he made his fortune and now how he is handling revelations about his banking and business affairs.
For a man described by Clinton as changing the world more than anyone else for the betterment of the poor recent negative press provides a dizzying contrast.
Over the past few weeks in Ireland there has been massive criticism of O’Brien after he went to court to prevent RTE, Ireland’s national broadcaster, reporting on his banking relationship with IBRC, the successor bank to Anglo Irish Bank, which was at the center of the banking scandal that almost bankrupted Ireland.
An activist member of parliament, Catherine Murphy, claimed in the Dail (Parliament) that O'Brien had received massive loans up to $500 million at an interest rate of 1.5 percent.
O’Brien strongly denied that Murphy's claim was true as did Mike Aynsley the former CEO of IBRC who described that information as “grossly inaccurate.”
The government has established a commission of inquiry to discover what the true facts of the matter are. Murphy is sticking to her guns that her statements are accurate.
O’Brien’s move to muzzle RTE and later to seek to use the injunction to prevent Murphy's speech made in the Dail under privilege from being reported created a storm of controversy and criticism.
Because Ireland lacks a first amendment it is a very litigious society. Another billionaire, Dermot Desmond, recently threatened to sue after being photographed at a funeral when he did not want to be. But seeking to silence a speaker in the national parliament was seen as a move too far by many commentators.
The IBRC loan was the latest in a perfect storm of controversy for O’Brien, who also is the major shareholder in Independent Newspapers.
One of his many companies, Siteserv, received the contract to install the hated Irish Water meters, which have been the subject of numerous mass demonstrations as the government seeks to raise tax revenues by charging for water.
O’Brien invested in several Irish companies in recent times explaining that vulture capitalists were stripping Irish assets and he wanted Irish companies to retain Irish shareholders. One of those companies was Siteserv and there have also been allegations he paid under the odds for it.
He provides over 10,000 jobs in Ireland, but the recent controversies have damaged much of the goodwill he should have enjoyed.
In a piece defending his legal and business moves and his right to privacy on his bank accounts O’Brien wrote that a close friend warned him he would get “dog’s abuse” if he purchased Irish businesses, something that has certainly come to pass.
O’Brien is nothing but resilient, however. He has been controversial for many years, ever since he purchased the second cell phone license during Ireland's wild west days when he was allegedly aided by the sitting government minister.
His international reputation, especially his connections to the Clintons, remain very strong however, and the domestic issues seem unlikely to damage that.
Still, for Ireland's richest Irish-born man and leading philanthropist, these must be trying times indeed.