THE FALLOUT FROM MORIARTY
It may have cost taxpayers €250m, taken aeons to publish its weighty conclusions and few people believe anyone will ever be prosecuted over its findings, but parsing the implications of the 2,300-page Moriarty report provides copious fodder for the Sunday broadsheets.
There is undoubted newsworthiness encased in the tedium: four years after the government granted the second mobile phone licence to a struggling ESAT Digifone in 1996, its majority owner Denis O’Brien pocketed IR£231m when the company was sold to British Telecom. In other words, it was effectively a licence to print money. The questions are: was the tender process fair and transparent – and could the state have driven a far harder bargain on the taxpayer’s behalf?
The consensus among the commentators is that Moriarty was spot on in his findings of dodgy deals in high places. Protests from O’Brien and former Fine Gael government minister and now Independent TD for North Tipperary Michael Lowry were simply not credible. If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, the likelihood is that it indeed a duck.
The Sunday Independent leads the results from one of its tried and tested social media type methods to tap into the zeitgeist of its readers – the telephone poll. Apparently, “An overwhelming majority agree with the findings of the Moriarty Tribunal and say they do not believe either Denis O’Brien or Michael Lowry, the main protagonists who have embarked on a campaign to attack the report”.
“The poll found 81% agreed with the findings of Mr Justice Moriarty; 87% did not believe Mr O’Brien and 94% did not believe Mr Lowry,” according to the newspaper – in which O’Brien is the biggest single shareholder.
Without regurgitating the whole saga, basically Moriarty found that in 1996 Lowry helped O’Brien in his application to secure a mobile phone contract for Esat Digifone. He said three sums of money amounting to €1.02m went from O’Brien to Lowry; two as outright payments, the third as support for a loan. Both men deny any payments or any bias.
In their analyses, commentators muse on the likely implications. Few believe the inferences relied upon by Moriarty will translate to prosecutions – the bar is much higher for criminal cases. However, the findings have undoubtedly damaged the reputations of the main protagonists.
Michael Lowry’s seat appears secure, such is the poll-topper’s reputation for “getting things done” for constituents. However, he is currently lobbying hard to develop a large casino in the area – a project that might now be considered a gamble too far.
Over in The Sunday Times, the main business focus piece draws a similar conclusion about O’Brien’s future prospects. He may be bruised, but the findings are unlikely to damage his growing Digicel mobile phone empire, which has risen over the last decade to dominate the Caribbean market.
However, there could be fallout for O’Brien nearer home, where he holds 22% of Independent News & Media and owns Today FM, Newstalk, 98FM and has stakes in a number of other radio stations.
“Market sources wonder whether O’Brien would ever be granted ministerial approval for full control of the (Indo) group,” write Tom Lyons and business editor, Brian Carey.
The other salient question is, of course, whether Lowry was the single bad apple or just one in a political barrel that stunk to high heaven.