Tue | Jan 25, 2022

Verene Shepherd | Denis O’Brien bats for reparation

Published:Sunday | November 21, 2021 | 12:10 AM

Denis O’Brien
Denis O’Brien
Verene Shepherd
Verene Shepherd

In this edition of Reparation Conversations, a collaborative initiative between The Gleaner and The University of the West Indies’ Centre for Reparation Research Digicel’s owner and founder, Denis O’Brien, extends his unambiguous support of CARICOM states in their demand for reparation from Britain. This support was proclaimed in a speech he delivered at Cambridge University on October 21.

I do not know that many billionaires, but I would hazard a guess that very few billionaires, especially those from the Global North, embrace publicly the cause for reparatory justice for which Caribbean people have been fighting for such a long time. That is why I was pleasantly surprised to see such support expressed by Digicel’s founder and owner, in a speech he delivered at Cambridge University on Oct 21, 2021, on Ireland’s role in the developing world. I thank my colleague, Dorbrene O’Marde, in Antigua-Barbuda, for sending me the full text of the speech, which is in the public domain. Before I get to that though, I was also very pleased to learn that Mr O’Brien understands the importance of history education. Among other things, he said:

“I learned about the world from my parents – the world of justice and injustice .... the world of business and politics and … the world of right and wrong. Not surprisingly I suppose, I developed an interest in history to find out what had happened in the past ... and why … history is such a very important subject because it gives everyone – children and adults – a context to the world in which we live and an insight into how events moulded thinking … attitudes ... actions … AND prejudices.”

He went on to lament that “Unfortunately, history is sometimes taught through a blurred lens. As a result, not only does it skew the reality but also it warps reactions. This happens in every country.” How true!

He proceeded to give an example of these “blurred lens”: “British schoolchildren learnt how William Wilberforce helped bring about the end of slavery. But have they ever been told about the gargantuan roles played by Daniel O’Connell or Lord Sligo in ending slavery? … I don’t think so.”

He then rehearsed those roles for them: the role of the Irish missionaries in education, the influence of the potato famine in shaping the Irish philanthropic nature, their passion for education for upward mobility and the reasons for migration, some to work in factories and build railways, others to do manual labour. He singled out one Daniel O’Connell, “who, over 200 years before Black Lives Matter, was lecturing in America on the evils of slavery”, proclaiming in the Deep South that: “Slavery is a crime, a high crime against Heaven … and its annihilation ought not to be postponed.” O’Connell’s message that all lives matter, O’Brien stated, inspired famous black abolitionists such as Frederick Douglas in his own political developments in United States; and back in Ireland he became known as ‘The Liberator’ because he mobilised the predominantly Catholic population – living in abject poverty as tenant farmers – and secured what was known as Catholic Emancipation.


Mr O’Brien duly highlighted the anti-slavery actions of the Irish, the slave-like conditions of indentured servants in the Caribbean (of course they were not enslaved), and the post-colonial Irish agenda in the developing world, including in Haiti and Africa. He also expressed support for CARICOM’s reparation claim against the British (even suggesting that “Ireland could be an honest broker in bringing together the former colonists and these new independent states that suffered the sheer inhumanity of slavery”). Mr O’Brien understands clearly the rationale for the Caribbean’s claim against Britain:

“If you look at the Caribbean today nearly all these former colonies are underdeveloped. When they became independent nations, they had little or no investment or financial reserves. This has had the effect of stunting social and economic development at great cost to their people … The poverty that these countries inherited from the British and other European powers at the time of independence, meant that these regions did not have the stability to move to the next level of growth while at the same time carrying large national debts.”

It would be remiss of me though, if I did not point out one gap in what was otherwise a good speech: Ireland’s own role in slavery and colonialism. David Akenson’s If the Irish Ran the World is one book that discusses that role in places like Montserrat, where there are even people with the surname ‘Irish’. It is true that some Irish rebelled against the Crown, but others served colonial interests overseas. They made fortunes from slavery. The most successful returned home as respected members of the establishment, built grand homes and were honoured with statues and plaques that endure to this day.


According to a November 15, 2015 article in the Sunday Times written by Eithne Shorta, it has emerged that more than 90 people in Ireland were listed as enslavers in 1834, controlling approximately 15,000 enslaved people in the Caribbean. Further, it has emerged from the University College London’s compensation database that Irish enslavers benefited to the tune of £375,405 from the compensation pay-out — some say the equivalent of €60.7m in today’s money.

Interestingly enough, the globalisation of the Black Lives Matter movement in the aftermath of the murder of African-American George Floyd has forced some Irish institutions to move to make amends for their role in slavery. In a March 2021 article by Rory Carroll, in the Irish Observer, we learn that Trinity College Dublin, founded in 1592, has launched a two-year investigation into its colonial past that will scrutinise funding, curricula and scholars, including George Berkeley, an enslaver philosopher after whom Trinity’s library was named.

After Britain abolished slavery in 1833, the university said, it continued to “export colonial ideologies and servants” to India, Africa and East Asia. “As one of the world’s oldest universities [we] have a particular responsibility to study our past,” said the provost, Patrick Prendergast.

It has been revealed that the front entrance to Trinity, and many other architectural landmarks, were built with money from tobacco and other slave-related revenues. There have even been calls to replace a statue of John Mitchel, a nationalist hero who supported US slavery, and a plaque to Major Richard Dowling, a Galway-born officer in the Confederate army.

“The establishment in Ireland was as much part of the empire as England was,” Neil Jordan, the film director and writer, is reported as having said.

So, from one history buff to another, I say, let’s keep talking history and gather more billionaires to the cause. At the same time, let us find those missing links and insert them so that all perpetrators can be identified and all victims can truly seek satisfaction and redress.

Send feedback to reparation.research@uwimona.edu.jm.