A happy ending – if you play the waiting game

Former proprietor of the Independent Tony O'Reilly has struck oil. It's enough to make you believe in happy endings

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There are very few times in one's life when there appears to be prima facie evidence of the existence of God. For me, it happened early yesterday morning.

Only a few days previously, I had been having lunch with a friend and we were discussing the travails of Tony O'Reilly, who once sat astride a huge, successful media empire (which included ownership of The Independent), but was ousted after a bitter boardroom battle with the telecoms mogul Denis O'Brien. It was a crushing defeat for O'Reilly, self-made billionaire, sporting hero and great Irish patriot, and I have always felt that the good guy lost. Of course, I come at this from a very partisan standpoint. For 12 years, Tony was the proprietor of The Independent and throughout that time I was its editor-in-chief, so I saw first hand how he defended the paper's independence, and took pride in its journalism.

For a man who was a supporter of the war in Iraq, a Eurosceptic and also a qualified admirer of George W Bush, this must have taken some doing, given that his newspaper was none of those things.

He defended me when a senior member of the Blair administration petitioned for my removal, and was resolute in the face of lobbying from pro-Israeli groups complaining about our Middle East coverage. Throughout this time, he put his money where his mouth was, and his financial support of The Independent through thick and thin – largely thin, it has to be said – was one of the things which caused him to lose his grip on the company. But it also ensured the survival of The Independent, which in turn gave birth to this newspaper.

As the commercial environment turned nasty, my meetings with Tony would become more like counsels of despair, but he was a great optimist (probably the most important asset for anyone with an entrepreneurial spirit) and there was always a light at the end of the tunnel. For the entire time I worked with Tony, this glimmer of hope was in the shape of his oil exploration company.

"Once we strike oil off Cork," he'd say, "all our problems will be solved." It became a refrain as familiar to those who worked with him as the anecdotes he told. I thought the possibility of lucrative oil reserves in Irish waters was the stuff of mythology, as likely as a leprechaun walking down O'Connell Street.

For more than 30 years, Tony believed that the oil beneath the Irish Sea could be extracted, and spent vast amounts of money trying to prove it. Yesterday, with the news that Providence – the company in which Tony has a major shareholding – has discovered unexpectedly large fields of oil, that will yield 280 barrels worth £17bn, I couldn't suppress the most joyful whoop on behalf of a man who got old trying, and finally succeeded.

I'm not saying it was divine intervention, but it was enough to make me believe in happy endings.

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