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Wednesday 6 December 2023 Dublin: 8°C

Denis O'Brien loses High Court case against Dáil committee

A judgement on O’Brien’s case against the Dáil Committee on Procedure and Privilege was made at the High Court this morning.

Updated 12.19pm

THE HIGH COURT has ruled against Denis O’Brien on all grounds in a case he took against the Dáil and the State.

The action concerned certain statements made about O’Brien’s business dealings in Dáil Éireann by TDs Catherine Murphy of the Social Democrats and Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty on 6 May 2015 during a debate on the sale of Siteserv.

The businessman alleged that those statements breached his constitutional right to privacy. He also said that they were prejudicial to another legal action he had taken against RTÉ.

Those same statements were subsequently declared to be protected under privilege by the Dáil Committee on Procedure and Privilege, the committee against which this action was based.

However, Judge Úna Ní Raifeartaigh today said that the statements did not decide the RTÉ case. Ruling against O’Brien, she also said Dáil utterances are protected from judicial condemnation and court interference.

On the topic of parliamentary privilege, she noted: “…in establishing the complex architecture of the separation of powers in the Irish Constitution, the framers of the Constitution made certain choices, and one of those was to create a strong set of privileges and immunities for parliamentary speech.

The language used to describe those privileges and immunities, in my view, signals the importance with which freedom of speech in the Oireachtas, and therefore in the Irish democratic state, was viewed and I have reached the conclusion that none of the issues in the present case are justiciable in the courts.

“If there is to be a signal sent out to prevent future revelations in the Dáil of private information or material the subject of injunctive relief granted by a court to an individual citizen, any such signal must come from the court of public opinion and the Houses of the Oireachtas, but not from the courts of justice. This is, in my view, what Article 15 of the Constitution clearly says.”

Article 15 of the Constitution reads:

The members of each House of the Oireachtas shall, except in case of treason as defined in this Constitution, felony or breach of the peace, be privileged from arrest in going to and returning from, and while within the precincts of, either House, and shall not, in respect of  any utterance in either House, be amenable to any court or any authority other than the House itself.

The Judge did signal a word of caution on the “potential damage, hurt and danger that could be caused to persons by reason of the revealing in public of deeply sensitive personal information of various kinds”.

“… There is no doubt that the impact of parliamentary speech can potentially be damaging and dangerous to individuals,” she said, citing a case in the UK where a “woman and her children were hounded from their home and subjected to vile abuse as a result of a parliamentary utterance”.

However, she reasoned:

My understanding of the Irish constitutional provisions is that the courts simply do not have a role in policing parliamentary utterances except, perhaps, in some extremely exceptional and limited circumstance of which the present case is not one.

Speaking to reporters following the ruling, Kildare deputy Catherine Murphy said she is “very pleased with the judgement”.

“It’s very comprehensive. The bottom line – and the judge made the point – [is] that TDs should be judged in the court of public opinion and there is a separation of powers between the courts and the Oireachtas.

“When you think about it, I mean, how could we possibly keep an eye on everything that is in the courts – things that are injuncted or whatever…

“I think the separation of powers is really important… essentially if it wasn’t there, you would be handing the keys of parliament away. We would cease to be able to do the work that we are elected to do.”

With reporting by Sinéad O’Carroll

Earlier: Denis O’Brien alleges that TDs prejudiced his case against RTÉ with Dáil speeches

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