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Dublin Central TD Neasa Hourigan addressing the Dáil Oireacthas

Defamation legislation will not catch 'unseen layer' of non-disclosure agreements, warns TD

Neasa Hourigan said she is aware of several cases where the ‘powerful’ have targeted campaigners and journalists via legal action.

LEGISLATION DESIGNED TO counteract wealthy groups and individuals from taking defamation action as a way of silencing journalists and campaigners may not have any effect on an “unseen layer of activity” allegedly taking place in Ireland, according to a Green Party TD. 

Neasa Hourigan has called for legislation to include provisions for the regulation of the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) in such legal cases, which she said can often take place outside the court process.

During a Dáil discussion on strategic lawsuits against public participation (Slapps), described by the Dublin TD as “meritless or vexatious lawsuits” taken against weaker parties who “express an opinion or convey information on a public matter that is perceived as unfavourable or uncomfortable to the powerful”, Hourigan said she has become aware of a number of such cases. 

The Dublin TD claimed under Dáil privilege that Iona Institute director and national newspaper columnist David Quinn has “threatened legal action” against an activist with one group advocating for safe access zones for abortion treatment.  

“He has asked not only for money and an apology, but also the signing of an NDA. Mr. Quinn has targeted this group in his columns before and his opinions cannot reasonably be disentangled from those of his employer, the Iona Institute,” Hourigan said.

When contacted by The Journal, Quinn said he could not comment on the case.

Addressing the Dáil, Hourigan said she had come across a number of examples whereby a person or entity instructs a legal representative to write a letter threatening legal action, “sometimes demanding an apology, usually demanding some financial restitution and, increasingly and more worryingly, demanding the signing of an NDA”.

This process typically takes place between private parties, “without any court being troubled at any time”, she said.

The Slapps legislation is based on a European Commission directive proposal to review current defamation law.

According to the Law Society, it allows the introductions of safeguards whereby a judge may be able to dismiss “manifestly unfounded lawsuits” against journalists and human rights defenders.

“While Slapp legislation will address initiated legal action, often on defamation, as far as I understand it, it will not cover actions prior to that initiation and their interaction with non-disclosure agreements, NDAs,” Hourigan said.

She said activist groups are “probably the strongest elements” of Irish democracy and warranted protection.

Under Dáil privilege she raised allegations of a relationship between registered charity the Iona Institute and a foundation which Hourigan claimed “bankrolls activity” against reproductive rights, marriage equality and trans rights.

She said research published by a European Parliamentary Forum called ‘The Tip of the Iceberg’ alleged there had been “interaction” between both groups.

She said the report contained information on how “foreign money is flooding into Ireland and other European countries to stoke discord”. 

The deputy added that the “possible involvement of the Iona Institute here is relevant because its 2020 financial statements showed that it did not incur legal expenses”.

Hourigan continued: “If its director enjoys the same luxury [not incurring legal costs] a great many activists and groups in Ireland could have received similar letters from Mr Quinn but, of course, neither we nor the Government will ever know that because the NDAs are in place and the matters in question will never get to court.

“I ask that any review of the Defamation Act 2009, any Slapp legislation and any legislation at all in this area would examine what additional protections can be put in place for activists and groups in the pre-court phase of this type of activity.”

Responding for the government, Minister of State Dara Calleary said the Department of Justice is working on amending legislation to deal with the Slapps directive proposal.

He added that potential remedies for journalists and activists subjected to “harassment” can avail of existing legislation including the Non-Fatal Offences against the Person Act, or anti-bullying legislation introduced last year – Coco’s Law – which he said strengthens powers around online harm, persistent communication or indirect harassment.

Additional reporting by Sinead O’Carroll

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