Veteran journalist Nell McCafferty has been banned indefinitely from appearing on any programming on independent radio station Newstalk after she branded Health Minister Mary Harney an alcoholic, the Sunday Independent has learned.
The station is bracing itself for legal proceedings which are to be brought by Health Minister Mary Harney, following Ms McCafferty's startling allegations on the station last Thursday.
A spokesman for Ms Harney declined to comment yesterday but the matter is now in the "hands of the minister's lawyers".
It has emerged that Ms McCafferty, who has been a regular guest on several of the station's most popular shows, will now not be allowed on air for the foreseeable future.
Ms Harney, who is on a 15-day state visit to New Zealand, has had extensive discussions "through the night" with her departmental officials and legal advisers over her options, after Ms McCafferty repeatedly branded her a "practising or recovering alcoholic".
The allegations were immediately declared as untrue by Newstalk and the offending interview has been withdrawn from the station's website.
Senior figures at the station have held numerous discussions since Thursday about the fallout of Ms McCafferty's comments and the failure of the station to prevent the comments from being broadcast. Speculation yesterday suggested a substantial settlement is likely.
Speaking to the Sunday Independent yesterday, Newstalk boss Frank Cronin said: "Nell won't be used again. We regret what happened and we did apologise to Mary Harney's press officer straight after the incident on Thursday. We will be reviewing how it happened and how we can prevent it from happening again."
Newstalk apologised last Friday for its "abject failure" in broadcasting the allegations during the Tom Dunne show.
It is thought that by issuing the apology early, the station may limit the level of damages it could incur.
Sources close to the Health Minister described the allegations as "beneath contempt" and "utter rubbish".
In its statement, Newstalk said: "It was alleged that Mary Harney, TD, Minister for Health and Children was and is an alcoholic, has been treated in hospital for alcoholism and, as a result, is unfit for office. It was also suggested that Ms Harney had been directly and personally responsible for the failure of Tallaght Hospital to deal properly with correspondence from doctors and for the deaths of patients.
"Each and every one of these allegations were untrue and were known to be without truth when they were broadcast."
The statement continued: "Newstalk deeply regrets that these allegations were made and accepts that these untruthful statements were deeply hurtful to Mary Harney and her family. Newstalk particularly apologises for the references to the death of Mary Harney's mother which were acutely insensitive in the context of this distasteful broadcast."
Meanwhile, angry government ministers and TDs have laid the blame for the timing of the X-ray scandal at the door of "disgruntled consultants" who they say are hell bent on bringing Ms Harney down.
Speaking to this newspaper, one minister said it was no coincidence that this story broke just as Ms Harney was getting on a plane to go to the other side of the world.
"They hate her, we know it and it is too convenient that this happened just as she left the country for 15 days," the minister said.
Despite the scandal, it is unlikely that Taoiseach Brian Cowen will sack Ms Harney, in whom he expressed his full confidence last week.