26-County Minister for Justice Michael McDowell has hidden behind parliamentary protections to accuse journalist Frank Connolly, of being involved in an alleged IRA plot to train rebels in Colombia’s civil war.
Mr Connolly is currently the director of the Centre for Public Inquiry and is the brother of Niall Connolly, one of three Irishmen who faced similar allegations in the ‘Colombia 3’ case.
By making the accusation in a written reply to a parliamentary question, Mr McDowell has used parliamentary privilege against the legal ramifications of making libellous or slanderous comments.
Mr Connolly rejected the allegations and accused the Minister of abusing his privilege and being part of a “witch hunt” aimed at destroying the Centre for Public Inquiry.
The centre, chaired by retired judge and tribunal chairman Feargus Flood, was established with O4 million funding by Irish-American philanthropist Chuck Feeney to conduct investigations into matters of public importance in Irish political and corporate life.
The Dublin government has strongly attacked groups who question government policy, including the Centre for Public Inquiry. Earlier this year, the ‘Rip off Republic’ television series hosted by financial analyst Eddie Hobbs became the subject of vituperative criticism after it highlighted wasteful government spending.
In a reply to a question by Finian McGrath TD, Mr McDowell said he had been informed by gardai that Frank Connolly entered territory controlled by FARC guerrillas on a false passports in 2001.
“On the basis of intelligence reports furnished to me, the [ April and August] visits appear to have been connected with an arrangement whereby the Provisional IRA furnished knowhow in the use of explosives. The consideration received by the Provisional IRA under the arrangement is believed to be the payment of a large amount of money by Farc which finances its activities by its control of the cocaine trade in the area of Colombia which it controls.”
Mr Connolly issued a statement yesterday dismissing the claim.
“The Minister has purported to usurp the functions of an Garda Siochana and the Director of Public Prosecutions and seeks to destroy my reputation by publicly making charges of a criminal nature against me.
“The Minister has sought to interfere with, if not jeopardise my employment as executive director of the Centre for Public Inquiry. By disclosing confidential information from Garda files to a member of the board of Atlantic Philanthropies, which funds the CPI, which is clearly insufficient to support a prosecution against me, he has intended to damage my reputation and my career as an investigative journalist, Mr Connolly said.
Mr McDowell told the Dail he had been informed by gardai that prior to the arrest of the Colombia Three in August 2001, authorities had established that three Irish people also entered Farc-controlled territory on false passports, one of whom was Frank Connolly.
Mr Connolly’s statement today said false allegations that he had travelled to Colombia using false documents had been appearing in titles owned by Independent News and Media since 2002.
He said Mr McDowell was now using Dail privilege to participate in these attacks and in so doing had “done incalculable damage to the integrity of his own office”. “He has joined what has become a veritable witch hunt against me.”
“The campaign of vilification descended to a more vicious level since my appointment as Executive Director of the Centre for Public Inquiry. The Centre for Public Inquiry has been targeted by certain elements in Irish Society who are hostile to a body established to carry out independent scrutiny.”
He said the CPI had produced two reports on the safety implications of the Corrib gas line in County Mayo and the controversial building of a hotel opposite the Trim Castle in County Meath.
Questions have been raised over the terms under which the Shell-led consortium got a licence for the pipe and five locals were jailed earlier this year for protesting against a line which they believe poses a serious safety risk.
Newspaper reports questioning the validity of the Corrib report emerged shortly after it was published last month and Mr Connolly believes the attacks on him are “a considered and timed response to the publication of the report on the Corrib gas controversy from those seeking to protect vested interests”.
“While it is difficult for me as one citizen of a State to defend myself when my character is attacked by a Minister of Government and a powerful newspaper group I will always defend my integrity,” Mr Connolly said in his statement.
Sinn Féin Dail leader, Caoimhghin O Caolain described the allegations as “an outrageous abuse of Dail privilege”.
“That he used a Dail mechanism to put on record unsubstantiated allegations marks a very sinister development in his ongoing campaign against the Centre for Public Inquiry.”
Mr O Caolian also expressed “grace concern” at the apparent conspiracy between the Ministry for Justice and Independent Newspapers to disseminate the accusations which were attributed in newspaper reports to “Garda sources”.
“People should be rightly concerned at the increasingly brazen and reckless behaviour of the Minister. This Minister has shown scant regard for due process in the past but this latest development, even for him, is a new low.
“No other Minister in government would be allowed to act with such scant regard for the law. It is time that Michael McDowell was reined in.”