Wednesday 17 January 2018

John Downing: High Court must decide on a conflict between Dáil rights and the rights of a citizen to privacy

POLITICAL STORM: Businessman Denis O’Brien
POLITICAL STORM: Businessman Denis O’Brien
John Downing

John Downing

It began as a legal dispute between the State's biggest media organisation, RTÉ, and the country's richest man, Denis O'Brien. Now the issue is also about the rights of democratically-elected TDs and the extent of a High Court order which limits reporting Dáil proceedings.

On May 18, the High Court upheld a case against RTÉ taken by Mr O'Brien, who is also the biggest shareholder in the company which publishes the Irish Independent.

RTÉ had wanted to broadcast details of Mr O'Brien's dealings with IBRC bank, which among other things was the successor to Anglo Irish Bank. The High Court upheld arguments put by Mr O'Brien and the IBRC, who supported his case, that RTÉ could not publicise his private dealings with a bank.

The full and final ruling is not due to be published until next Friday. The ruling has to be written in such a way as to not divulge the private dealings concerned.

Last Thursday, Independent TD Catherine Murphy tried to give details of what she said were the issues covered by Mr O'Brien's dealings with IBRC. Mr O'Brien has said that these were inaccurate and he questioned where and how Deputy Murphy got the information.

Deputy Murphy said she stood by what she had said, which is now recorded in the Dáil record. Politicians from all parties have supported her. The politicians have warned that the basis of the entire democratic system is called into question.

But Mr O'Brien countered that all citizens have the right to privacy and he also raised concerns about wrong information being published under Dáil privilege.

The Government has refused to recall the Dáil, which is not sitting this week.

RTÉ and other media organisations are going back to the High Court tomorrow to see whether they can publish what Ms Murphy told the Dáil last week. The more detailed written judgment is due next Friday and is also related to the questions before the court tomorrow.

Media organisations have not been able to report the full details of what was in the High Court. And they have not been able to report Ms Murphy's related Dáil statements because of the May 18 High Court ruling.

It is unclear whether the legal exemptions given TDs and Senators making contentious statements extend to newspapers, radio and TV reports. Most legal opinion so far suggests not.

Two other matters arise. The first is how restricting publishing parliamentary proceedings can work in the modern internet era.

The other concerns the questionable use of Dáil privilege. Last December, Sinn Féin TD Mary Lou McDonald used privilege to name six former politicians who it was suggested had held offshore bank accounts - something they denied. The controlling Dáil Committee on Procedure and Privileges has ruled that Ms McDonald misused Dáil privilege. But she has insisted that she stands by what she said.

There is serious doubt about any meaningful sanction against a politician deemed by his or her peers to have abused privilege.

Experts agree a major constitutional issue is at stake.

Irish Independent

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