The epic feud between two of Ireland’s richest business titans

We profile two of Ireland’s richest business titans, Sir Anthony O’Reilly and Denis O’Brien, currently engaged in a bitter feud over the fate of the Independent News & Media group.

Irish history, says The New York Times, is "rich in epic feuds of kings and clans"; the battle currently being waged between two of Ireland's richest titans shows little has changed.

On one side is Sir Anthony O'Reilly, the former international rugby star who pummelled his way to become Ireland's once-unrivalled business king. On the other, horse-pill salesman turned telecoms magnate Denis O'Brien.

The feud between the two billionaires has now erupted into outright war, with O'Brien "parking his tanks" on O'Reilly's lawn by amassing a 21% stake in the latter's flagship Independent News & Media group (IN&M).

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In Britain, the focus is on the fate of The Independent newspaper (see below), but in Ireland, attention is centred on the bigger battle for IN&M, whose media interests stretch from Ireland to South Africa, Australia and Asia. "Perhaps no other Irish person symbolises the changing landscape of this country over the past 18 years more than O'Brien," says the Dublin-based Business and Finance magazine.

And he's certainly keen to marginalise arch-rival O'Reilly. In a recent interview, O'Brien whose circle includes Ryanair's Michael O'Leary claimed "99% of Irish business people all get on together", with the exception of "one outsider". Guess who.

The Sunday Telegraph likes the "dapper and charming" O'Brien, concluding that while doggedly ambitious, he "remains at heart a clubbable Irishman". O'Reilly, on the other hand, claims O'Brien is purely motivated by a personal grudge, which began when O'Reilly bested him in a battle for telco Eircom in 2001.

"Ironically", says The New York Times, "if the two were not such bitter rivals, they might find many similarities. Both are self-made billionaires and active philanthropists... who enjoy sports and who prefer to pay their taxes in countries with lower rates than Ireland."

Both were also tearaway youths. O'Brien, 49, confesses that at school he was primarily interested "in doing a bit of disruption" (he was suspended for driving a car over the cricket pitch). His real education came from his father, who sold horse-care products. O'Brien was groomed to take over the business, but on a sales trip to the US he had an epiphany when he tuned into a home shopping channel.

His subsequent attempts to start a satellite channel in Ireland bombed; but the skills he acquired paved the way for a Dublin radio venture. His first big coup only came in 1995 when he grabbed the licence to run Ireland's second mobile service, later selling the business, Esat Telecom, to BT for e1.9bn at the height of the tech boom. O'Brien then ploughed into the Caribbean mobile market. The gamble paid off: his firm Digicel is worth over £1bn and he's now above O'Reilly in Forbes' rich list.

"My interests now are outside Ireland," claims O'Brien, who lives in Portugal. But, says The Sunday Telegraph, "Ireland still has an interest in him". Central to the O'Reilly case against him is an investigation into whether he bribed politicians to win his original mobile-service licence in 1995. O'Brien in turn accuses the O'Reilly family of defaming him and in 2003 claimed he was "waiting for the appropriate time to rectify the damage". That day of reckoning may be drawing close.

The gloves are off but what's all the fuss about?

"Nobody peering bemusedly into this Irish mist, hearing the O'Briens snarl and the O'Reillys snarl back, can tell you quite what it's all about," says Peter Preston in The Observer. O'Brien, now a major IN&M shareholder, accuses the O'Reilly clan of running the Independent group as a personal fiefdom: packing the board with family members and splurging cash on "the company plane, sponsorships, horseracing, parties and share options". Last week, IN&M's CEO, Gavin O'Reilly, hit back, citing the "lies and innuendo" peddled by a dissident shareholder, "counter to the principles of a fair and orderly market", notes the Irish Times.

That's not all. In a recent paper they hinted that O'Brien runs loss-making and debt-ridden businesses, challenged his management record and questioned his integrity. "Buying a lot of shares in a company at a time when he was talking down the business raises important ethical questions."

Where will it all end? The answer is of vital importance to The Independent's future. The O'Reillys view the loss-making newspaper as the "jewel in the IN&M corporate crown... acting as a calling card in new markets that might otherwise remain closed", says The Observer.

For O'Brien, on the other hand, it is no more than a profit-sapping "vanity project". He clearly thinks he can run the whole show much better, says Preston. The trouble is, IN&M's recent healthy results under O'Reilly "show a clean pair of heels to most rivals". O'Brien clearly still expects to win control of the group, but the O'Reilly family, "can block any takeover", says The New York Times. This one could run and run.