At the end of January 2013, Digicel Group, the mobile phone company controlled by Irishman Denis O’Brien announced that it had submitted “an expression of interest in Myanmar” – see extract below. This follows reporting over the past year that Digicel was pursuing business opportunities in Burma.
Digicel Group Limited is incorporated in Jamaica, and outside of company announcements, it is not easy to penetrate the company’s finances. The Sunday Independent reports that earthquake stricken Haiti is now the biggest contributor to group profitability and indeed it is amazing that the group has revenues of USD 2.5bn from a reported 12.8m customers, that’s an average of USD 200 per year per customer. And the countries in which Digicel operates are amongst the poorest in the world. Just a well-run business, I guess.
However all of this is of little interest to us in Ireland. As far as can be established on here, Digicel does not employ people in Ireland, doesn’t pay VAT, income or corporation tax here, there is no investment from the company or other visible sign of direct benefit to this country.
But, so what? A large and seemingly profitable company with an Irishman at the helm should be something in which we can at least have some pride. And even if Burma is a human rights wasteland and narco state, and happens to be the fourth most corrupt country on the planet, where even the US bans its companies from doing business with certain local businessmen, why should we be concerned if Denis O’Brien wants to risk his time and resources pursuing business there. Good luck to him. Seriously.
Of course, we are all naturally interested in Denis O’Brien because he is reputedly one of Ireland’s richest men, even if he is resident in Malta. He owns or controls Irish companies which employ over 1,000 people and he is also a prominent – some say dominant – figure in our private media sector. He pays tax on income earned in Ireland. He is also a man against whom the Moriarty Tribunal made so-called “adverse findings” arising from the relationship between Denis and then-minister Michael Lowry at the time that a mobile phone licence was being awarded in the 1990s. Denis vehemently refutes the “adverse findings” and claims they are of no legal effect.
Justice minister Alan Shatter says that An Garda Siochana is still liaising with the Director of Public Prosecutions about the report.The two-part report from the Moriarty Tribunal is here. In a report by Transparency International last year on Ireland, Denis was adversely mentioned when the country suffered a record deterioration in its corruption index. A statement was issued on Denis’s behalf shortly afterwards drawing attention to the fact that although Denis was mentioned in TI’s press release, he was not mentioned in “the surveys used to compile the index”
An Taoiseach however accepts the findings of the Moriarty Tribunal, though there was criticism that it took him nearly 18 months to do so, but accept the findings he did when he spoke at the MacGill Summer School in Glenties last July 2012.
So then, why did An Taoiseach use the opportunity of the recent Davos conference to advance Irish communications investment in Burma, communications investment that, in most likelihood, would have some association, direct or indirect, with Denis. And why is An Taoiseach apparently promoting business in a country like Burma in any event?
Let’s take a look at the facts in the following 6-point timeline.
23-27 th January, 2013.
An Taoiseach attends the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. It was widely reported that Denis O’Brien also attended.
12th February 2013
“When speaking to people in Davos, the issue of the opening up of Myanmar, the former Burma, arose. It is a country of which we do not have great knowledge, although there were real connections between Ireland and Burma as it was called. That country of 60 million has a huge range of natural resources, yet some 58 million of its people have never had access to communications. That country will move from what might be termed ground zero to cloud computing and cloud access straight away. The scale of the investment there will be enormous. ”
19th February 2013
An Taoiseach responds to a question from Sinn Fein
Deputy Pearse Doherty: To ask the Taoiseach if he will confirm the discussions he had at the recent Davos summit with respect to investment in Myanmar, Burma; the persons with whom he had discussions; the nature of these discussions; if he has committed to deliver any assistance to any party in respect of communications investment in Myanmar.
An Taoiseach: The opening up of Myanmar and prospects for development and investment there is an important global theme, which arose in various discussions in Davos. It is also part of the Government’s ongoing consideration of international opportunities for trade and investment for Ireland. Last year’s visit to Ireland by Aung San Suu Kyi was a signal of the important and positive reforms being made by the Myanmar government. These reforms should be welcomed as key building blocks to improved international relations.
I did not make any commitment to deliver assistance to any party in respect of communications investment in Myanmar.
21st February, 2013
Sinn Fein submits the following questions to An Taoiseach, and gets a response at (6) below
To ask An Taoiseach further to question 196 on 19th February 2013, if he had discussions or other interaction with Mr Denis O’Brien, the chairman of Digicel Group at the recent Davos summit, and if so to provide an outline of the matters discussed?
To ask An Taoiseach further to question 196 on 19th February 2013, if he had discussions or other interaction on the subject of Myanmar (Burma) at the suggestion of Mr Denis O’Brien, the chairman of Digicel Group or his representative or representatives, at the recent Davos summit, and if so to provide an outline of the matters discussed?
To ask An Taoiseach further to question 196 on 19th February 2013, if he had discussions or other interaction on the subject of Myanmar (Burma) at the recent Davos summit with representatives of the government or president of Myanmar, and if so to provide an outline of the matters discussed?
26th February, 2013
Deputy Colm Keaveney asks a parliamentary question about Davos
Deputy Colm Keaveney, asked the Taoiseach, if he will provide details of all bilateral meetings held between himself and any other individual or group at the recent annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, including the identity of all such groups or individuals and the purpose of each meeting; and if he will make a statement on the matter.
Taoiseach (Deputy Enda Kenny): The annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) is attended by political and business leaders and heads of international organisations and provides a unique forum for debate and discussion on a wide range of topics of global economic and political interest. I attended the 2013 annual meeting in Davos from 23-25 January. Details of my programme are set out below. The primary purpose of my engagements at the WEF was to promote Ireland as a location for international business and investment.
WEF Davos, 2013 – Taoiseach’s Programme
Wednesday 23 January
Working dinner for Heads of State or Government attending World Economic Forum, hosted by Professor and Mrs. Schwab.
Thursday 24 January
Meeting with New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) Euronext
Media event – CNBC Europe
Meeting with Ms. Christine Lagarde M.D. of the IMF to discuss progress in implementing Ireland’s EU/IMF Programme
WEF interactive plenary session on “Eurozone Crises –the way forward” with;
PM Monti of Italy
PM Rutte of Netherlands and
PM Thorning-Schmidt of Denmark
WEF working lunch on “Europe Growth and Employment”
Meeting with Diageo
IDA event for client companies and prospects (approximately 45 attendees) also meetings with
Friday 25 January
Media event – Reuters
Bank of America
WEF Private High-Level working lunch to discuss the prevailing global themes for 2013
Address at Transatlantic Business Dialogue on strengthening the EU-US trade and investment relationship.
5th March 2013
An Ceann Comhairle, Sean Barrett, rules questions at (4) above out of order
I doubt that you have heard the end of the matter.