Saturday 20 October 2018

RTÉ's Byrne says SF panellist dismantled IRA allegation

Presenter gives evidence as Sinn Féin manager Kehoe takes defamation action over her show

Claire Byrne at the Four Courts yesterday. Photo: Collins
Claire Byrne at the Four Courts yesterday. Photo: Collins

Tim Healy

RTÉ presenter Claire Byrne told the High Court she thought a former minister of state "had gone doolally" on her radio show.

Ms Byrne thought claims by then Labour Party TD Joe Costello that Sinn Féin political manager Nicky Kehoe was a member of the IRA army council, controlling how councillors voted at meetings, were outrageous.

She said her tone towards Mr Costello, a former minister for trade, was incredulous.

"I thought he had gone doolally. I remember sitting there thinking 'where is this coming from?'," she said.

"I expected him to represent government policy and what he was doing was bringing it down to local politics.

"My tone was incredulous because that is how I felt at the time," she said.

Nicky Kehoe arriving at the Four Courts yesterday. Photo: Collins
Nicky Kehoe arriving at the Four Courts yesterday. Photo: Collins

Ms Byrne was giving evidence as part of RTÉ's defence of a defamation action against it by Mr Kehoe, a former city councillor and Sinn Féin director of elections and now employed as a political manager by the party.

He says he was falsely described by Mr Costello, on an October 2015 'Saturday with Claire Byrne' live panel radio programme, as a former chief of staff of the IRA who was controlling how SF councillors on Dublin City Council voted.

Yesterday saw further cross- examination of Mr Kehoe and evidence from three community activists in the Cabra area who all said they did not believe his standing in the community had changed as a result of what was said on the programme.

In her evidence, which began yesterday afternoon, Ms Byrne said after Mr Costello made the comments, her producer Kay Sheehy pressed the "talk back button". The talk back button is a warning system between presenter and producer and a click came on in Ms Byrne's headphones.

She thought what Mr Costello had said was outrageous and a strange thing to say, and she was about to intervene when another panellist, Sinn Féin's Eoin Ó Broin, spoke and named Mr Kehoe.

Before that, she did not know who Mr Costello was talking about.

Asked by her counsel Cian Ferriter about a suggestion from Mr Kehoe, during his evidence, that she should have cut Mr Ó Broin off from naming him again, she said she felt if she had stopped Mr Ó Broin she would have been doing him and Sinn Féin a disservice.

She said Mr Ó Broin, who she earlier described as a very smart and intelligent person and one of Sinn Féin's three top people, stepped in to defend Mr Kehoe and proceeded to dismantle Mr Costello's argument.

"In my professional opinion, I felt in a live broadcast if I had stopped him from proceeding with that defence, that would have caused more harm."

She felt Mr Ó Broin had, from the minute he intervened, destroyed Mr Costello's argument.

RTÉ guidelines are that presenters must act promptly when issues like this occur.

Watery

While this was quite an unusual instance, she had in the past stopped people from naming others during discussions and saw that as her professional duty.

There was a clarification issued at the end of the programme, which Mr Kehoe had described as "very watery".

Ms Byrne said this was done at the end rather than shortly after it occurred because if she had done it earlier there was a risk of Mr Costello "coming in and saying something else".

"I decided to move on and let us all come back with cool heads at the end of the programme and issue the clarification."

Earlier, Mr Kehoe told the court he did not accept he now has "zero reputation" when it came to his association with the IRA.

He accepted that would be the case in relation to the 1970s and 1980s, when he was involved in IRA activities, but disagreed that was so today.

He agreed he was regularly referred to as a former IRA gunman but said: "That is why I am trying to clear my name."

The case, which is being heard before a judge and jury, continues on Tuesday.

Irish Independent

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