Sunday 23 April 2017

Transport Minister says reporting restrictions on Dail proceedings ‘untenable’

Denis O'Brien tells Catherine Murphy: 'I'll take steps to vindicate my rights'

Transport Minister Paschal Donohue
Transport Minister Paschal Donohue
POLITICAL STORM: Businessman Denis O’Brien

Meave Sheehan and Ronald Quinlan

THE minister for Transport Paschal Donohoe has said that it is not tenable that media organisations here are unable to report on what has taken place in the Dail while media outlets abroad can.

Independent TD Catherine Murphy read onto the Dail record allegations about the banking affairs of businessman Denis O’Brien which were the subject of a high court injunction brought against RTE.

Speaking on RTE’s ‘The Week in Politics’ programme, Mr Donohoe said the Dail will debate the issue after next week’s recess, when the courts will have clarified the position following applications brought separately by RTE and the Irish Times.

Meanwhile, speaking on RTÉ This Week, Independent TD for Kildare Catherine Murphy said she is confident of her sources in relation to information she received.

A spokesperson for Mr O'Brien, James Morrissey has said the information, which was read to the Dáil on Thursday by Ms Murphy, was fundamentally wrong.

Ms Murphy said she would not have put on record something, if she had a serious doubt about it and that she believes what she did is in the public interest.

Mr O'Brien wrote personally to Ms Murphy on Friday, accusing her of breaching a Dail standing order, and reserved his right to "take such steps" against her to "vindicate my rights against you".

Yesterday, Alan Dukes also launched a scathing attack on the independent TD Catherine Murphy, claiming she is "downright, plain wrong" about allegations she made using Dail privilege about Mr O'Brien.

Mr Dukes told the Sunday Independent: "I have no doubt that at the end of this process, whenever we get to it, that Catherine Murphy will still say she's not satisfied because she's invested so much political capital in this that she can't see sense or reason, and she will never be convinced. But she's downright, plain wrong."

Using Dail privilege on Thursday, Ms Murphy disclosed what she believed to be details of Mr O'Brien's banking arrangements with IBRC. She did so a week after the businessman won a High Court order preventing RTE from reporting similar disclosures.

While her Dail speech remains on the Oireachtas website, media outlets have not reported her comments because of the court order.

Meanwhile amid a deepening political storm, Taoiseach Enda Kenny has refused to bow to demands from opposition parties to recall the Dail over what Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin called the "silencing" of the media.

Ms Murphy's repeated questioning about the sale of Siteserv to Mr O'Brien has escalated into what some are calling a potential constitutional crisis, that pits the powers of High Court against the privilege enjoyed by TDs in the Dail.

Read more: Judges may have to square up to Dail over privilege row

What is now being labelled a "constitutional crisis" stems from the sale of the construction services firm, Siteserv, to Mr O'Brien, Ireland's richest businessman, in 2012.

The company owed €150m to the former Anglo Irish Bank, which was nationalised and renamed IBRC. But it had no chance of repaying its debts, and in agreement with IBRC, it was put on the market to the highest bidder. Walter Hobbs, the man who supervised the process, said Mr O'Brien's bid was the best, the simplest and most capable of being completed.

The State-owned bank wrote off €100m of Siteserv's debt and, most controversially, approved a €5m payment to shareholders in this effectively insolvent company, and Denis O'Brien got the business for €45m.

The sale was completed in 2012, but unhappy bidders queried the deal, opposition politicians took it on but none with more zeal than Catherine Murphy, the independent TD, who lobbed question after question to Finance Minister Michael Noonan.

The controversy kicked off in recent weeks when a file of finance documents, released under Freedom of Information, disclosed that officials in the Department were not only unhappy with the Siteserv deal, but also had concerns about IBRC.

The Taoiseach said the Comptroller & Auditor General would review the Siteserv deal. But it turned out that IBRC was outside of the C&AG's remit. So Minister Noonan asked the KPMG accountants in charge of liquidating IBRC to review the deal instead. Catherine Murphy did not find this acceptable, so she began working on her own private member's bill to extend the C&AG's remit to cover the IBRC.

Meanwhile, RTE, the national broadcaster, began working on a report that took a closer look at Mr O'Brien and his banking relationship with the IBRC, prompting the businessman to apply for a High Court injunction. On May 21, the High Court granted him an interlocutory injunction preventing RTE from broadcasting the report.

A week later, last Thursday morning, Catherine Murphy rose in the Dail chamber to propose her private member's bill extending to Comptroller and Auditor General's remit to cover IBRC. In doing so, she argued for an independent inquiry into Siteserv because of "a web of connections and conflicts that requires outside eyes to unravel".

She went on to make allegations about Mr O'Brien's banking relationship under Dail privilege - a subject covered by the High Court injunction. But it quickly emerged that her comments could not be reported in the media without risk of flouting a High Court order.

By Friday, politicians of all hues had weighed in at what was widely regarded as an unprecedented development. Lucinda Creighton, the leader of Renua, offered her party's "total support" for Catherine Murphy. She said the silencing of media outlets was a "grave" situation, and called on all 166 TDs to stand up and defend the individual right of TDs to comment and to raise issues of public interest in the Dail.

Yesterday, Joe Costello, the Labour party TD and former minister, said all members of the Oireachtas would be behind her, pointing out that the constitution states "absolutely" that "utterances made in either house, where ever published, shall be privileged".

But for Denis O'Brien, the issue not only encompasses his right to confidentiality in his bank dealings, and an interlocutory High Court order upholding that right, but the information that has been put on the Dail record by Ms Murphy is, he claims, "materially" inaccurate.

In his letter to Ms Murphy, seen by the Sunday Independent, he said he "respects" her entitlement to freedom of expression, but was "disappointed that based on information which you know to have been stolen, you made seriously accusatory statements in the Dail which are materially inaccurate and in spite of acknowledging the terms of an injunction granted by the courts of the State, you knowingly breached that injunction on the grounds that your interpretation of the public interest is to be favoured over the determination of where the balance of the public interest lay by the High Court".

He accused the TD of abusing Dail privilege, and breaching a specific Dail standing order. "I will be writing separately to the Ceann Comhairle but it is a worrying day for the democratic institutions of this State when a member of the Dail deliberately undermines an order of the judiciary of the State."

Alan Dukes added his voice to the debate yesterday, dismissing renewed claims of a cosy relationship between Mr O'Brien and IBRC executives, and criticising the political "bandwagon".

He said there "may well be" a "constitutional issue" to sort out. But he asked: "Where does parliamentary privilege end and privacy begin?" He said: "Catherine Murphy started off all of this. Then Fianna Fail jumped on the bandwagon and then some time later Renua jumped on; all of them without any new information or anything substantial to bring to the discussion.

"All of them happy to blame the fire brigade for the fire and none of them having any experience of dealing with the nature of the fire itself."

Yesterday, Ms Murphy told the Sunday Independent she had not yet received Mr O'Brien's letter, but was standing by the information she put on the Dail record.

Responding to Mr Dukes' comments, she said: "I'm very satisfied that if there's a proper inquiry, it will be able to come to a conclusion about who's wrong and who's right in this. I got my information from a source I believe to be credible. Do I ignore that or do I go with it if I believe it to be in the public interest? I put it on the public record in good faith and in the context of trying to widen the inquiry where the C&AG will do it."

Sunday Independent

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