Constitutional crisis over parliament reporting ban
Constitutional crisis over parliament reporting ban


Denis O’Brien, one of Ireland’s wealthiest and most powerful men, has been accused of gagging free speech and the Dublin parliament itself over his attempt to silence reporting about his finances.

O’Brien (pictured, left) is the major shareholder in Ireland’s Independent News and Media Group and owns 20 national and regional newspapers, as well as two major radio stations. Last week he won an injunction that his lawyers argue prevents Irish state-run broadcaster RTE from reporting a speech in the Dail by a leftwing deputy who raised questions about the billionaire’s relationship with the state-owned bank, the IBRC.

The IBRC is the state-run successor to the now defunct and disgraced Anglo Irish Bank, the financial institution that almost bankrupted the state through reckless lending to some of Ireland’s wealthiest investors.

Independent TD Catherine Murphy used Dail parliamentary privilege to question the IBRC deal. She said:

“We are now aware... that the former CEO of IBRC made verbal agreements with Denis O’Brien to allow him to extend the terms of his already expired loans...

“I understand that Mr O’Brien was enjoying a rate of approximately 1.25% when IBRC could, and arguably should, have been charging 7.5%.

“Given that we are talking about outstanding sums of upwards of 500 million euro, the interest rate applied is not an insignificant issue for the public interest.”

Ms Murphy, TD for Kildare North, has previously claimed Mr O’Brien had sought an arrangement to “pay off his own loans in his own time at low interest rates”.

O’Brien has long been a controversial figure in Irish public life. In 2011 he was found by a tribunal of inquiry to have made large payments to then Fine Gael Communications minister Michael Lowry, who improperly assisted his effort to secure a lucrative mobile phone license.

The IBRC deal was to enable O’Brien to purchase the Siteserv company (a utility firm that installs controversial water meters across the 26 Counties), itself a controversial transaction.

O’Brien, who lives in Malta for tax purposes, applied for an injunction to restrain broadcasters reporting about his deal with IBRC on the grounds that it breached his privacy rights and would cause him commercial damage.

IBRC, which brought a separate but related application before the court, supported O’Brien.

RTE opposed the injunction on grounds including the right to freedom of expression and public interest. It also argued the courts should be slow to interfere with legitimate journalistic judgment.

“The fear of reporting even privileged Dail speech shows how dangerous the extent of the O’Brien empire is for Irish media and society in general,” said media commentator Padraig Reidy.

“Mr O’Brien may justifiably claim a right to reputation, but the right of the press to report parliamentary proceedings is paramount in a functioning democracy.”

Legal expert Paul McDermott said the unresolved “clash” between the court order and the constitutional protection afforded to Ms Murphy while speaking in the Dail amounted to a constitutional crisis.

He pointed to article 15:12 of the Constitution, under which TDs are entitled to legal privilege for comments they make in the Dail chamber. The Constitution reads: “All official reports and publications of the Oireachtas [parliament] or of either House thereof and utterances made in either House wherever published shall be privileged.”

Attempts by the opposition parties to recall the Dail to resolve the matter have so far been rejected by the Fine Gael/Labour coalition government.

Fianna Fail Leader Micheal Martin said the Dail must be recalled “to reassert the basic principle that Dail speeches and the reporting of them are protected by absolute privilege”.

“It is unprecedented that a matter of serious public interest raised in the Dail cannot be aired or reported on by the national broadcaster and other media outlets,” he said.

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams also said the Dail should be recalled.

“Parliamentary privilege is a cornerstone of how the Oireachtas operates,” he said. “Protected by the constitution, TDs and Senators must be secure in the knowledge that they can speak freely and frankly on issues of grave national importance.”

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