Whelan felt 'threatened' by email from union
Threat of court action being used to stifle free speech, claims senator
The Labour senator John Whelan has expressed concern over the growing "chill factor'' stifling free expression of opinion in Irish public life.
The senator was commenting on a "bizarre email'' he received in the wake of a tweet by him about a news report by the respected RTE industrial correspondent Ingrid Miley last Saturday on the march against austerity, which said ICTU president Eugene McGlone had called for a "general strike" against austerity.
In the tweet, Whelan said: "ICTU Pres Eugene McGlone grossly irresponsible calling for general strike. Presume his job is secure. What about Croke Park & industrial peace?"
After union sources initially criticised McGlone for going on a 'solo run', SIPTU general president Jack O'Connor subsequently said he was satisfied McGlone "didn't specifically call" for such a demonstration of trade union muscle.
Subsequently, the Belfast ICTU communications officer John O'Farrell "fraternally" emailed Whelan and asked him to withdraw his "inaccurate defamatory and ignorant tweet'' and to apologise.
The ICTU official, who is believed to have acted with the consent of McGlone, also copied his email to a number of Labour party press officers.
"Mr McGlone did not call for a general strike at Saturday's rally, therefore your initial judgement that he was 'grossly irresponsible' is both inaccurate and defamatory,'' he wrote, claiming that Whelan's remark was a "libel with a snide remark about Mr McGlone's job security. As well as being childishly rhetorical (at the level of a certain Sunday newspaper), this remark displays a level of ignorance about the democratic structures of Congress. . . which is dismaying for a Labour politician, even one who has been appointed, rather than elected, to his elevated position''.
O'Farrell noted that the "president of congress made an important speech at an important event for working people. He does not deserve to have his message ignored in favour of a myth spread by malicious whispers, be they on Twitter or the blogosphere''.
Speaking to the Sunday Independent, Mr Whelan said: "While the email did not explicitly threaten to sue me for libel there was an undercurrent involving phrases like libel and defamatory which appeared to be saying apologise or there will be trouble.
"In the wake of other cases you would feel threatened by such a communication."
Mr Whelan added that "a growing pattern appears to be evolving in Irish public life where the threat of the courts, be it explicit or implicit, is used as a scarecrow to temper the expression of free speech''.
Mr Whelan told Mr O'Farrell that far from believing that he had "defamed Mr McGlone as you allege, I believe I made a fair comment, on a matter of the utmost national importance in the public interest as is my role and responsibility as an elected member of the Oireachtas. I do think that any call or talk of a general strike in our country at this time is grossly irresponsible".
He added: "On a daily basis I am berated as a Labour representative for defending and supporting the Croke Park Agreement but do so on a number of grounds, not least the stability and industrial peace it secures. How an ICTU official could consider talk of a general strike in that context and the present economic climate is beyond me.''
The Sunday Independent has learnt ICTU also complained to RTE about the interpretation of McGlone's speech.
However, part of the news coverage shows Mr McGlone, having put his speech in his pocket, saying to protesters: "I'm gonna tell you how to get a general strike. And the very first thing you do is you make sure you are in a trade union.''
Mr McGlone concluded: "So don't say in one sense you want a general strike, work for the bloody thing and you'll achieve it. Victory to the workers, comrades.''
Union leaders denied he was calling for a general strike.