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Sunday 4 December 2016

Threats of lawsuits loom for McDonald over Dáil Ansbacher account allegations

Shane Phelan and Daniel McConnell

Published 10/04/2015 | 02:30

Mary Lou McDonald
Mary Lou McDonald

THE threat of a legal action is looming over Mary Lou McDonald after she was found to have abused parliamentary privilege.

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Lawyers representing two former politicians and the family of a deceased government minister are examining whether the Sinn Féin deputy leader can be sued over remarks wrongly linking them to tax evasion.

Ms McDonald has refused to apologise after naming six of the 10 politicians implicated by civil servant Gerard Ryan in the Ansbacher affair in the Dáil last November.

Legal representatives of former EU commissioner Ray MacSharry, former MEP Gerry Collins and the family of the late Tánaiste Brian Lenihan Snr are "actively examining" whether a legal action can be brought.

They believe the findings of the Dáil's oversight body, the Committee on Procedures and Privileges (CPP) may have opened the door to a lawsuit.

The CPP concluded that Ms McDonald should not have named the former politicians, that her comments "were in the nature of being defamatory" and that they were "prima facie an abuse of privilege".

Mr MacSharry told the Irish Independent the matter was in the hands of his lawyers, Arthur Cox.

Meanwhile, Aidan Eames of Eames Solicitors, which represents Mr Collins and the family of the late Mr Lenihan, said the advice of senior constitutional lawyers was being sought.

"We are giving serious consideration to the issues arising from the determination by the CPP and the legal implications of this for Deputy McDonald," said Mr Eames.

A key issue to be teased out is whether the absolute privilege enjoyed by TDs speaking in the Dáil chamber still applies if that privilege is deemed to have been misused.

Ms McDonald used Dáil privilege to highlight claims made in a dossier compiled by Gerard Ryan, an authorised officer at the Department of Jobs who investigated the Ansbacher offshore tax dodging scheme between 1998 and 2004.

She issued a statement yesterday standing over her actions. "I exercised my constitutional right to privilege in the Dáil to give voice to very serious allegations made in respect off-shore accounts and political obstruction," she said.

"The source of these allegations is a briefing dossier prepared by authorised officers who are both reputable and credible."

Suspended

In a statement, the Houses of the Oireachtas said that under article 15.13 of the Constitution, "any utterance" made by a TD or senator in the House "shall not be amenable to any court or any authority other than the House itself".

While it would be unprecedented for a politician to be successfully sued in connection with comments made in the Dáil, there is precedent internationally.

A New Zealand MP, Owen Jennings, lost a defamation case after making comments in parliament and then standing over them in a subsequent newspaper interview.

While some of those named by Ms McDonald are considering their legal options, former Progressive Democrats leader Dessie O'Malley has ruled out taking a lawsuit. Instead Mr O'Malley said he would call on the Dáil authorities to suspend and fine Ms McDonald.

"She should be suspended and she shouldn't be paid for the time she is suspended," he told the Irish Independent.

"The Dáil is free to impose sanctions upon her and I wish they would. She alleged tax evasion, which is a criminal offence. There is always a small possibility that some people would have believed it as true."

During her controversial Dáil speech, Ms McDonald stated Mr Ryan had claimed former Tánaiste Mary Harney shut down his investigation once her party colleague Mr O'Malley "was discovered to be one of the holders of these accounts".

Ms Harney, who strenuously denied the allegation, did not want to say whether or not she was contemplating any action against Ms McDonald.

"I don't want to get involved in any discussion. I am happy with the outcome from the CPP," she told the Irish Independent.

"Parliamentary privilege is very important for the operation of our democracy. It is very precious and therefore has to be used extremely cautiously. It must never be abused to defame or wrong citizens."

Irish Independent

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