Irish billionaire Denis O’Brien has initiated a new series of legal proceedings against Irish legislators and threatened to sue two websites which published a satirical article mocking him.
O’Brien is widely alleged to have made a series of corrupt deals with successive 26 County governments and their agencies. In his latest legal assault on the parliament in Dublin, he is suing every member of the Dail’s committee on Procedure and Privileges (CPP), including the Ceann Comhairle [speaker] Sean Barrett.
The businessman is already taking legal action against both houses of parliament and the 26 County State for claims made in debates about him. He argues speeches made by independent TD Catherine Murphy and Sinn Fein TD Pearse Doherty are a breach of his human rights.
O’Brien’s lawyers, William Fry, said there was no “effective parliamentary procedures to prevent a member abusing parliamentary privilege”.
Four years ago, O’Brien was found by the Moriarty Tribunal to have given a 600,000 euro bribe, via an offshore bank account, to win the mobile phone network licence. In 2013, his Siteserv firm was awarded a multi-million euro contract for water metering being carried out by Irish Water amid a controversy over the tendering process for the contract.
There have been a number of claims in the Dail this year about the sale of Siteserv to O’Brien by the IBRC, a state operated ‘bad bank’. The businessman claimed the allegations made against him in parliament are an attempt to “determine in whole or in large the case pending before the courts against RTE”. He has been separately pursuing a High Court injunction against RTE, the state-run broadcaster, preventing it from televising a report about his personal banking arrangements with the IBRC.
His new lawsuit comes after a Dail committee failed to silence speeches making reference to him. Independent TD John Halligan, who is a member of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges (CPP), said O’Brien’s legal proceedings were a “gross interference with the running of the Irish parliament”.
“We don’t make decisions lightly. Mr O’Brien is now trying to interfere in the running of the national parliament. It is an outrageous attempt to stifle and silence our parliament.”
Minister for Transport Paschal Donohoe said that the rights of the CPP were a cornerstone of democracy and other senior political figures expressed grave concern about the case.
“Public representatives when they are elected to the Oireachtas have abilities that are available to them in terms of speaking about things that matter to our country.”
Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin said the action was “a very serous threat to democracy.”
Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said TDs must be able to question the actions of the powerful and the privileged “without fear or favour”.
“All citizens are entitled to the protection of their good name,” said Mr Adams. “However, the principle of Dail privilege is a key provision in the democratic process.
“It is a disturbing development when a very powerful businessman seeks to interfere with the business of the Dail. Let’s remember that Denis O’Brien already succeeded for a period in preventing media outlets reporting on Dail proceedings.
“None of this is healthy for democracy. It does not serve the interests of citizens. TDs must be free to questions the actions of the powerful and the privileged without fear or favour.”
Separately, a satirical website, ‘Waterford Whispers News’, has been forced to remove an article about businessman O’Brien from its site, following a threat of legal action from his lawyers. Another website, broadsheet.ie, has also faced legal threats after it published a screenshot of the offending article, which describes a ‘parallel universe’ in which O’Brien is convicted of corruption charges.
Meanwhile, a call for a public boycott of O’Brien’s business interests is growing.
O’Brien owns Communicorp, a media holding company which dominates national radio (apart from RTE) via stations like Newstalk and Today FM. His Independent News & Media group controls the Irish Independent as well as the Irish Daily Star, the Sunday Independent, the Sunday World, Dublin’s Evening Herald and regional newspapers.
O’Brien also operates Topaz fuel stations, which was rebranded from Shell following the ‘Shell to Sea’ environmental controversy in Rossport, County Mayo over an onshore gas refinery and pipeline.
The Dublin 1916 Societies have been calling for and holding ‘Boycott Topaz’ protests all over Dublin for some time now. They have reported a “great reaction” from passing motorists and with most observing the protests and not filling up for their duration.
“Everything points to an unhealthy influence on affairs here by this oligarach and we’re calling, along with many others, for a boycott of all enterprises owned by Denis O’Brien,” they said.