Tue. Jul 23rd, 2024

Denis O’Brien is one of Ireland’s richest men – thanks to his international telecoms business, Digicel.

He’s 65, white, a regular at Davos, apparently a friend of the Clintons, and a minority shareholder in Celtic FC.

He’s also the perhaps unlikely middleman in the campaign to get Britain and the European Union to pay reparations to Caribbean nations for their role in the transatlantic slave trade.

“It is the single biggest issue in the Caribbean for the entire population,” Mr O’Brien told Kamali Melbourne on the Sky News Daily podcast.

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It’s significant enough to Mr O’Brien that his campaign is funding a lobbyist on a salary of £50,000 to work with a Labour MP to get reparations paid, according to the Irish Independent.

Mr O’Brien set up Digicel in 2001, with the company operating in 25 Caribbean and Central American countries, including Haiti, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago, having previously owned other media and tech companies in Ireland.

‘A Holocaust that went on for 300 years’

He’s demanding that Britain and other European governments pay reparations to Caribbean nations for their role in the transatlantic slave trade – which saw some 12.5 million captured people taken from Africa to the Americas and Europe over an almost 400-year period.

“This was a Holocaust that went on for 300 years. Millions of people lost their lives. Nobody has ever apologised to these countries,” Mr O’Brien said.

“I think the British government and the European Union cannot ignore this now because the Dutch government have already apologised. They’ve set aside 1 million. They’re the first country to apologise,” he continued.

“The reason why Great Britain and many other countries that were involved in the chattel slave trade didn’t apologise is because they didn’t want to have a liability.”

Reparatory justice

Over his 25 years working in the region, he’s had many conversations about reparations. “The biggest thing on their minds is reparatory justice, because they feel that when these countries got their independence, the cupboards were bare.

“People said, this money will be used by governments, and it will be corrupt, and they won’t use the money properly. Now, that is a form of racism in my mind because they’re being judgmental on the ability of these countries and these governments to properly use reparative justice money.”

Mr O’Brien believes it is possible – but with collective support. “I think when we go and explain to the British public what this is all about and what we’re trying to achieve that opinion will change dramatically.

“From our point of view, we have to rally public opinion here in the United Kingdom for us to be successful in achieving reparative justice.”

Image:
Denis O’Brien, at Communicorp’s HQ in Dublin, Ireland

The call for reparations from nations in which chattel slavery operated is not new – intellectually it is as old as the end of the trade itself in the 19th century.

Reparatory justice was given a framework in 2014 when Caribbean nations – collectively known as CARICOM – adopted a 10-point plan to laying out what is needed for the victims of transatlantic slavery, and their descendants.

That plan includes a sincere formal apology by the governments of Europe, debt cancellation as well as calling for European governments to participate in the alleviation of illiteracy and health.

Mr O’Brien founded the Repair Campaign, which seeks to push former colonial powers to acknowledge their role in the transatlantic trafficking of enslaved Africans.

The organisation is working with researchers at the University of the West Indies and CARICOM to produce socioeconomic reparatory justice plans for 15 Caribbean countries.

“We’re not asking for a cheque upfront for each country of compensation. We’re saying that should be paid out over 25 years. Then that money can be used as supplementary money in the budgets of each of these countries with a proper plan,” Mr O’Brien said.

‘I feel part of the Caribbean’

When asked about why – as a billionaire who is white – he had taken on this campaign, Mr O’Brien said: “My ancestors didn’t benefit from slavery or economically in any way. I feel part of the Caribbean.

“I have so many friendships all over the Caribbean. I don’t see just because I’m white, why I shouldn’t put a campaign together for reparatory justice.”

Dr Angelique Nixon, from the University of the West Indies, said she was “all for” billionaires like Mr O’Brien campaigning for reparations, as long as “communities are at the heart of these decisions”.

She spoke more to the Sky News Daily about the ongoing impact of the slave trade’s legacies on Caribbean communities, and remaining exploitation of islands through unsustainable tourism.

‘There is a clear line of money’

“It’s so, so infuriating that programmes have spent the last 30 years telling Caribbean governments that they can’t invest in people. We have to invest in our people. We have to deal with the historical injustices of a lack of education and the lack of investment in our own societies, our own culture,” she said.

“There have been so many studies on the legacies of British slave ownership, the monies that were paid out by British taxpayer dollars to British slave owners and plantation owners,” she said. “There is a clear line of money.

“Those monies were invested in what has created the United Kingdom, what has continued to sustain British power. And so, there’s no longer this question of, oh, we can’t figure it out. We can absolutely figure it out.

“The heart of reparations is that investment.”

At a PMQs in April this year, Bell Ribeiro-Addy, a Labour MP and chair of the APPG on Afrikan Reparations, asked Rishi Sunak if he would offer “a full and meaningful apology for our country’s role in slavery and colonialism, and committing to reparatory justice”.

“No,” was the prime minister’s response. “I think our focus should now be on doing, while of course understanding our history in all its parts and not running away from it, is making sure that we have a society that is inclusive and tolerant of people from all backgrounds,” he told the House of Commons.

“That is something that we on the government benches are committed to doing and will continue to deliver, but trying to unpick our history is not the right way forward and is not something we will focus our energies on,” he added.

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Producer: Soila Apparicio
Interviews producer and additional production: Melissa Tutesigensi-Charles
Promotions producer: Jada-Kai Meosa John
Editor: Philly Beaumont

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