Saturday 15 December 2018

Watchdog issues legal threat to top political journalist

'Sunday Independent' writer stands up for protecting sources

Independent News and Media (INM) journalist Philip Ryan (right) and solicitor Kieran Kelly. Photo: Mark Condren
Independent News and Media (INM) journalist Philip Ryan (right) and solicitor Kieran Kelly. Photo: Mark Condren
Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

A powerful political watchdog has threatened a Sunday Independent journalist with standards in public office laws which could result in thousands of euros in fines or up to three years' imprisonment.

The Standards in Public Office Commission (Sipo) wrote to Sunday Independent political correspondent Philip Ryan asking him to produce personal information ahead of a hearing into alleged planning irregularities.

The watchdog sought the information under the Ethics Act and warned the journalist that it would be an offence not to produce the material at a Sipo hearing which took place last week.

Mr Ryan was also instructed to attend an investigation hearing into the planning claims which took place in Sipo's office on Leeson Street in Dublin city centre last Monday. In the letter dated October 18, the journalist was warned it was an offence not to produce the information requested. However, the request from Sipo was rejected by lawyers acting for Mr Ryan on the grounds it breached the journalist's right to protect his sources.

In a letter to Sipo, Kieran Kelly, of Fanning Kelly Solicitors, said the journalist would be "reserving his position" in relation to the production of information and answering questions at a hearing.

"Mr Ryan will, if necessary, assert his right to protect the identification of his sources, whether such sources have been identified or otherwise as is his right under the law and as provided for under Article 10 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and fundamental freedoms," Mr Kelly said. Breaches of the standards in public office legislation can be penalised with fines of up to €25,000 and a maximum of three years in prison.

The Sipo investigation relates to allegations of planning irregularities first revealed by the Sunday Independent three years ago. Last Monday, the Commission opened a public hearing into the allegations of planning irregularities involving Mayo Co Council chief executive Peter Hynes, Fine Gael councillor Cyril Burke and Independent councillor Frank Durcan.

According to Sipo's website, Mr Hynes, Mr Burke and Mr Durcan are alleged to have contravened the Ethical Frameworks for the Local Government Service.

As the case opened, the hearing was told Remy Farrell SC would be representing Sipo, with Patrick Leonard SC for Councillor Burke, Michael McDowell SC for Mr Hynes, and Michael Carroll BL for Cllr Durcan.

Before the case could be heard, Mr Leonard made a preliminary application for some or all of the proceedings to be heard in private.

Mr Leonard said his application would last around 10 minutes, with further submissions and then the Commission's decision to follow.

Mr O'Keeffe estimated this would take around half an hour, and all members of the public and witnesses were then excluded from the room.

However, more than three hours later, Sipo staff members told waiting members of the public and the media that the entire hearing would be taking place in private.

The hearings will resume in private on December 1.

Sunday Independent

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