BusinessAny Other Business

Boris Johnson’s former top adviser doing business in Dublin

Any Other Business: DAA and Ryanair; Trump’s Doonbeg earnings; who will bid for the Telegraph; AIB back in court; data centres row; and what next for the GPO

Boris Johnson’s former director of communications has visited Ireland for a meeting with Irish Distillers. After leaving 10 Downing Street last September, Guto Harri joined the board of Hydro Industries, a water technology company with offices in Swansea, London and the Middle East.

According to its website, Hydro designs bespoke water systems, “guided by proprietary software”. You can see why that might be of interest to distillers, who use up to six litres of water per bottle of whiskey.

Of his contacts with Irish Distillers, Harri tells me: “We are in talks and we are confident we can deploy state-of-the-art technology that will allow them to make more whiskey and meet the highest environmental standards on wastewater. We turned up with former Welsh rugby captain Dai Pickering [chairman of Hydro] and Brigadier Rick Libbey, former head of the British army in Wales [chief executive of Hydro]. We had a great time; loved the business and applaud their environmental ambitions.”

Irish Distillers tells me that it did indeed meet with Hydro last November, a meeting that was facilitated by a third party. However Hydro is not part of any live tender process, “and the firm has never been invited to tender as part of a tendering process.


DAA takes up the Ryanair communications playbook

DAA has finally won a battle in its long-running war of words with Ryanair. In typically bombastic fashion, the airline insisted there was an easy solution to the shortage of car parking spaces at Dublin Airport this summer. The semi-State owns lots of land in the area, Ryanair claimed, “which could be opened as a temporary car park at very short notice”.

In response, DAA pointed out that car parking requires infrastructure, and therefore planning permission. “We are running the fifth largest transatlantic hub in Europe, not a county fair,” it said, grabbing all the media headlines. The “county fair” put-down was first used by chief executive Kenny Jacobs during an interview with Pat Kenny on Newstalk, and the DAA press office pounced on it for a subsequent news release.

The line was itself Ryanair-esque, which is no surprise given that Jacobs spent six years as the airline’s chief marketing officer. Clearly the student learned well from the master. Has Michael O’Leary finally met his match?

How much did Trump make out of Doonbeg while president?

Donald Trump made almost $25 million from Doonbeg golf resort in the four years he was American president, according to an analysis by Citizens for Responsibility & Ethics in Washington (Crew). He made another $58 million from Turnberry and Aberdeen in Scotland. “All of this revenue came with extraordinary conflicts of interest,” says Crew, a non-partisan and non-profit organisation.

On his election as US President in 2016, Trump made the unprecedented decision not to divest himself of his business interests. Instead, he took every opportunity to promote his Irish and Scottish golf resorts, including stays there at US taxpayers’ expense. “With each visit, Trump extracted every penny he could from the US government, charging the Secret Service exorbitant rates for rooms, and tacking on additional charges,” says Crew. The most notorious example was the $15,144.94 bill for accommodating Secret Service agents at Doonbeg during a two-day visit by Mike Pence, the then vice-president, in September 2019.

Now back on the presidential campaign trail, Trump has again visited Doonbeg and the Scottish resorts, posting on Truth Social, his social-media platform, that “the golf courses and hotels are among the greatest in the world”. Still, nobody in Tourism Ireland is going to complain.

Will the Irish Independent owner bid for the Telegraph?

Mediahuis, owner of Independent News & Media, is being tipped as a possible purchase of the Daily and Sunday Telegraph newspapers, now in the hands of a receiver. We asked a spokesman for the Belgian media group if it is, indeed, interested. “Mediahuis is aware of speculation in the market mentioning us as a potential acquirer of the Telegraph Media Group,” said An Steylemans, its head of group communications. “But as always, we do not comment on such speculations.”

Well, sometimes you do. “If the Telegraph is for sale, they should give me a call,” Gert Ysebart, chief executive of Mediahuis, told a Future of News conference in London in November 2019.

Were Mediahuis to buy the Telegraphs, it would reunite its chairman, Murdoch MacLennan, with a group he led for 13 years. He might not be welcomed back, however. While MacLennan delivered profits for the Telegraph’s former owners, the Barclay brothers, he also oversaw several rounds of redundancies among journalists.

Data centres are using more than electricity

Data centres are not just putting pressure on the electricity grid; a dozen of them are hooking up to the gas supply. Eamon Ryan, the energy minister, has told the Dáil that one data centre is connected to the gas network, but a further 11 are “contracted to connect, and are currently anticipated to be enduring connections”. Eight of these are “islanded”, which means they are not plugged into the electricity grid and are powered by on-site generation.

Ryan has told Gas Networks Ireland (GNI) that it would not be “appropriate” for it to sign any more contracts of that sort. “Growth in ‘islanded’ data centres could result in security of supply risk being transferred from electricity to gas,” he pointed out, “which would be a significant challenge given Ireland’s reliance on gas importation.”

GNI seems to be pushing back, however. According to the Gas Act – yes, there is such a thing – it cannot refuse reasonable requests. Aoife MacEvilly, the chair of the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, told an Oireachtas committee last month that “in the case of GNI, there appears to be in its legislation, as it tells us, almost no power other than to continue to connect”.

Anyway, GNI doesn’t seem to have a problem with data centres. In its Gas Forecast Statement 2022, GNI says those connecting to the gas network can go on a path to net-zero emissions “through the increased use of biomethane and hydrogen”. Which prompted Senator Lynn Boylan of Sinn Féin to wonder: “Should we be changing the mandate of Gas Networks Ireland?” Perhaps the Gas Act could be amended to say that large users can only be connected if they are already net zero.

AIB in court with a Kallakis family member again

It’s a case of Back to the Future for AIB as one of the biggest real-estate scams in history reappears like a zombie in a horror movie. Michalis Kallakis, the son of Greek fraudster Achilleas Kallakis, who secured over €800 million in loans under false pretences, is suing AIB in London, claiming the bank defrauded them. The claim, which an AIB lawyer described as “beyond fiction”, is that the bank sold properties connected to the scam at below market value as it tried to recoup losses.

A lawyer for the plaintiff has argued that Achilleas Kallakis, “as a professional fraudster, is particularly vulnerable to being deceived himself”, adding “as anyone who has seen Michael Caine and Steve Martin in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels will appreciate”.

Achilleas Kallakis may not appreciate being described as a “dirty rotten scoundrel”, even though he was jailed for seven years for fraud in 2013, later increased to 11. Appearing at Southwark Crown Court last February, Kallakis insisted the jury got it wrong. “I accept I was convicted but I don’t accept I was guilty of the offences I was charged with,” he said. As well as fraudsters, there is no shortage of Hollywood movies about people who were unjustly incarcerated. This one might be more Who Framed Roger Rabbit? than The Shawshank Redemption.

What’s next for the GPO?

The decanting of An Post staff from the GPO on O’Connell Street to the Exo building in docklands continues. But what will happen to the historic building once they’re gone? The post office and GPO museum will remain, as will 180 An Post staff for now, but there will be lots of empty office space around them.

The Office of Public Works has yet to take control of the building, which is still vested in the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications. “Arrangements to transfer the GPO title to the OPW will be put in place,” the department said. “There are a range of issues to be addressed prior to this being implemented.”

The 200-year-old building needs refurbishment, including replacement of wiring and plumbing, before it can be put to a new purpose. The cost of that has been put at €50 million, and who knows how long it will take. Another underused building in central Dublin? Just about the last thing O’Connell Street needs right now.