Slugger O'Toole

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Sinn Fein defamation of Declan Gormley, and what comes next

Fri 14 December 2012, 5:38pm

So the news from the Belfast High Court is that a jury has found Sinn Fein guilty of defaming of Declan Gormley, one of four non executive directors of Northern Ireland Water sacked by Sinn Fein’s former DRD minster and Westminster MP, Conor Murphy.

The trial took an extraordinary 10 days in court. Ten days in which Mr Gormley, the plaintiff spent an equally extraordinary five days in the witness stand being questioned by Sinn Fein’s counsel.

The party’s defence rested largely on an appeal to qualified privilege. This is a piece of statute that grants considerable latitude and space for what would otherwise be considered illegitimate attacks between opponents in the political sphere.

The party’s case stated that they they viewed Mr Gormley – who is an ordinary citizen and not a member of any political party – as a political opponent, primarily, it seems, for taking his case in the Assembly through MLAs from another party, ie John Dallat and Patsy McGlone of the SDLP.

The appeal was struck down because the Jury found both press releases to have been written with malice.

Sam McBride noted at the time, Conor Murphy’s view when he was questioned by Mr Gormley’s counsel:

Nicolas Hanna QC for Mr Gormley put it to Mr Murphy that there was “nothing unusual” about MLAs making representations on behalf of those who contact them or asking Assembly questions.

Mr Murphy agreed but said that civil servants could tell questions were “the product of some internal information”, as most MLAs’ questions to ministers were “very general”.

When it was put to him that the detailed questions put by Mr Dallat and Mr McGlone were not “unique” as other MLAs asked detailed questions about issues, Mr Murphy said that he believed there should be “an obligation on politicians” to disclose if they were asking questions on behalf of someone.[emphasis added]

The former minister has this somewhat backwards. Civil servants ought to provide committees with specific detail rather than generalised summaries. That they were not is a flashing red light on the ability of the Assembly to hold Ministers to account.

I suspect right back to the moment Mr Murphy sacked Mr Gormley from the Board of NI Water, a lot of things have been gotten backwards, not of all of which lies at his door. He was poorly served by the highly irregular conduct of his Permanent Secretary for one thing.

In this case (and the archives on Slugger are extensive not to say exhaustive on the matter) we have not found one item that would have remotely justified the sacking of Mr Gormley.

His determination to clear his name has been both dogged and exemplary. As we noted at the time of the PAC, when Gormley’s whistle blowing began in earnest:

One the most controversial aspects (as has been noted by some readers in previous Slugger threads on this subject) is that two of the non executive directors were recruited at the same time, and only a year before MacKenzie discovered the ‘problem’ with procurement.

One, Declan Gormley, was sacked whilst the other, Don Price, was retained. Again the report makes no real distinction between the two, other than to say that neither can be held to account too strongly for the problem with ‘single tender actions’.

And yet, of the two, it would be reasonable to assume that Don Price, as chair of the Audit Committee, was a great deal closer to the source of the problem than Gormley, who had no direct responsibility on the matter.

This case may have also have some major implications for DRD, which has spent nearly £8 million years in legal fees and compensation over the last four years. In answer to an AQ from Patsy McGlone, the department disclosed the following:

As for Sinn Fein, whatever the jury decide they must now pay in compensation to Mr Gormley, they will also have to foot all the costs of what has been, not least because of their own lengthy cross examination of the plaintiff, a very expensive set of legal proceedings.

It is a good day for democracy in Northern Ireland, if only in the limited and negative sense that the jury has knocked back a defence that might have made it possible to for a politician of any stripe to defame anyone they regard as a political opponent.

For that we can be thankful. As, no doubt will Mr Gormley who stood to lose a small fortune in defending his reputation.

Having won this battle, it is unlikely he will want to leave matters there. There are serious questions to be answered about the original sacking. In that regard, the ball is now firmly in the court of Mr Murphy’s successor, the UUP Minister Danny Kennedy.

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Comments (35)

  1. David Crookes (profile) says:

    Good for democracy indeed, Mick. If Mr Gormley writes a book about his experiences it will be useful reading for MLAs.

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  2. BarneyT (profile) says:

    Big pay day for Gormley? I’ll expect a bit more ticket selling and few additional raffles this Christmas in south armagh to fund it :-)

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  3. Mick Fealty (profile) says:

    For the life of me, I do not understand why they did not settle out of court. They will have to ante up a shed of cash, as well as an admission of guilt, and presumably a judgement.

    The defence they adopted is itself pretty damning when they advertise the fact members of the public can be defined as political enemies…

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  4. wild turkey (profile) says:

    Mick, well, well. some just and honest outcome in this whole affair. slugger is to be congratulated for its persistence when the MSM really didn’t give a shit. well done.

    ‘It is a good day for democracy in Northern Ireland’,
    but with an emphasis on ‘the limited and negative sense that the jury….’

    of the three branches of gov’t, the judiciary is the least democratically accountable. doesn’t say much for the executive, of which Mr Murphy was a member, or the legislature as the assembly, including the PAC, never really got a serious grip on the, admitedly complex, issues involved.

    ‘ I’ll expect a bit more ticket selling and few additional raffles this Christmas in south armagh to fund it ‘

    or maybe the price of petrol and diesel on the monaghan and cavan borders goes up by a few pence?

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  5. BarneyT (profile) says:

    no no…leave the diesel alone…. :-)

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  6. Dixie Elliott (profile) says:

    The Adamsites don’t seem to be able to deal with the fact that the days are gone when they could send out the balaclavas to silence criticism.

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  7. son of sam (profile) says:

    One wonders who was responsible for the strategic running of this case.Was Connolly House directing operations or did the instructed counsel have control?Given the reputed wealth and resources of Sinn Fein,it is surprising that Senior Counsel wasn’t briefed to counter Mr Gormley’s Q C.The amount of damages awarded will be interesting.

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  8. Pigeon Toes (profile) says:

    Congratulations to Mr Gormley… it’s just a pity that he had to take such action in the first instance…I suspect that he would never have bee interested in any out of court settlement.

    Mr Gormley’s responses during the case resonate on a personal level and I applaud his bravery and tenacity….

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  9. Mick Fealty (profile) says:

    PT,

    I think he would most certainly have settled this long long ago. Before he even took the whole thing to law.Its been an extraordinary display of bravado and the power of deep deep resources.

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  10. Mick Fealty (profile) says:

    Nev, you need to be very very careful what say. I’ve taken that comment down because you got at least one key detail wrong. Right about now is not a good time to get sued.

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  11. Pigeon Toes (profile) says:

    Mick,
    Aye but not as an out of court settlement where generally there is no admission of liability. Declan himself has stated that such action was a “last resort”….I understood he would have been happy with an apology … Sometimes these things aren’t about the money.

    To paraphrase Mr Gormley, he stated that he was from a background where the only thimg one had was one’s good name…
    Meanwhile I’m still in astonishment at Murphy’s stated-under-oath idea of democracy…

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  12. Pigeon Toes (profile) says:

    “He said: “I’m delighted, I feel the verdict has vindicated the position I have held throughout that this was something that was wrong.

    “I’m also disappointed that I had to end up in court, I would have been happy to settle for an apology and a public acknowledgement that it was wrong.”

    http://www.u.tv/News/Water-director-wins-SF-libel-action/e7857a63-4267-4c11-a765-66fcbeaefea9

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  13. DC (profile) says:

    SF running around with its silly wee libel.

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  14. Mick Fealty (profile) says:

    Just who in SF thought this was a good idea. My understanding is that Gormley repeatedly tried to come to some kind of arrangement with the party over this.

    You can tell even from the way their counsel played the trial they played it hardball (has anyone ever heard of a plaintiff being on the stand for the guts of five days?)

    Given the result, you have to question their judgement here.

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  15. son of sam (profile) says:

    Mick
    I refer to my earlier post.Was the legal team under strict instructions from Central Control as presumably pragmatic lawyers might have run the case in a different way.But I suppose lawyers are bound by their instructions.

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  16. Mick Fealty (profile) says:

    Well keeping the plaintiff in the stand for that long is far from standard practice.

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  17. Pigeon Toes (profile) says:

    “Given the result, you have to question their judgement here.”

    In the case or in the NI Water tale as a whole?

    “Former Northern Ireland Water director Declan Gormley, the man libelled in two Sinn Fein press releases, said on Friday that the party could have avoided the case — estimated to cost more than £200,000 in legal costs alone — if it had apologised to him as he had earlier requested.

    As the News Letter has reported for more than two years, Mr Gormley has always maintained that his sacking by the then Sinn Fein Regional Development Minister Conor Murphy in 2010 was totally unjustified.

    Significantly, as well as the jury’s unanimous verdict yesterday, the trial judge dismissed Sinn Fein’s claim that his dismissal was “vindicated” by an extensive inquiry by Stormont’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

    Mr Justice Gillen said that a “careful reading of the PAC report” would have shown Sinn Fein that it was “no verification whatsoever of the claims against Mr Gormley”….
    http://www.newsletter.co.uk/news/headlines/sinn-fein-libelled-water-chief-1-45912

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  18. Pigeon Toes (profile) says:

    Presumably the outcome here will have further implications for the other court actions proposed at the time….” Former non-executive Director Declan Gormley is threatening new legal action against Minister Murphy and the DRD. Mr. Gormley has notified all of the relevant parties that he will proceed with misfeasance and defamation proceedings unless he receives a retraction and apology for his dismissal from NI Water.

    His lawyer has also written to Minister Murphy seeking a similar resolution to the case.
    He has now instructed Belfast lawyers Carson McDowell to act on his behalf.

    Declan Gormley has said:

    “I would confirm that I have put the relevant parties, including Minister Murphy, on notice of my intention to proceed with defamation and misfeasance proceedings which arise out of totally unfounded allegations attributed to me and which resulted in my unfounded dismissal from my post as non-executive Board member of NI Water.”
    http://sluggerotoole.com/2011/04/21/declan-gormley-launches-multiple-legal-actions/

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  19. Sean Og (profile) says:

    Poor judgement from Sinn Fein alright. It was clear early on that Gormley never should have been sacked and that Murphy was badly advised.

    Why didn’t he just apologise? Perhaps Sinn Fein saw him as a political opponent all along?

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  20. OneNI (profile) says:

    Declan Gormley deserves our thanks for standing up to the bully boys. His best decision was to employ Nicholas Hanna whom I met in a non professional capacity a couple of times and thought he was a throughly decent chap.
    Must make a point of never coming up against him in court however

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  21. son of sam (profile) says:

    One N I
    Note your comments above.The question must be asked why Sinn Fein didn’t employ a top flight QC in the circumstances.Money surely wasn’t a consideration .

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  22. Kevin Says (profile) says:

    This case is growing in importance, and the considered response from Sinn Fein – which must surely follow the announcement of the damages to Mr Gormley – will be eagerly awaited. In particular, the explanation for the jury’s finding that the party acted with malice will be closely studied. Can anyone say why RTE seems not to have carried a single line on the legal proceedings from start to finish ?

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  23. Reader (profile) says:

    son of sam: The question must be asked why Sinn Fein didn’t employ a top flight QC in the circumstances.Money surely wasn’t a consideration .
    Maybe any they tried advised them to settle out of court; so they ended up with one who would do what he was told?

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  24. Lionel Hutz (profile) says:

    It’s a good thing Gormley wasn’t poor, given the legal aid cuts

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  25. Jack2 (profile) says:

    Great coverage Mick,
    One in the eye for our political overlords that thankfully the public purse wont have to pickup.

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  26. Reader (profile) says:

    Lionel Hutz: It’s a good thing Gormley wasn’t poor, given the legal aid cuts.
    No problem. If he could find a lawyer who believes there was ever a realistic prospect of legal aid for libel he might be able to convince him there still is.

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  27. Mick Fealty (profile) says:

    Reader?

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  28. Sean Og (profile) says:

    @ Mick – You don’t get legal aid for libel cases.

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  29. Reader (profile) says:

    Mick Fealty: Reader?
    Sorry – I was seconded to the Christmas chain gang for a couple of hours there so I didn’t see the query. Sean Og clarified the point (thanks). I think Lionel was just on his ‘legal aid’ hobby horse.

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  30. Nevin (profile) says:

    “Nev, you need to be very very careful what say.”

    Thanks for the advice, Mick; that’s why, when it comes to delicate matters, I reference official documents. Feel free to remove anything that you’re unsure of or feel uncomfortable with; it’s better to be safe than sorry.

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  31. Lionel Hutz (profile) says:

    Lol. Right enough. I’ve never been involved in defamation proceedings. In my box…

    I suppose it wouldn’t be high on the list of priorities. There are some areas where there should be legal, especially employment cases IMO. I think they do in England.

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  32. Lionel Hutz (profile) says:

    Mick,

    I was wondering if there are going to be any articles on legal aid seeing as the battle lines are being drawn.

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  33. Los Lobos (profile) says:

    The rather large hole in the DRD budget to pay for this case may well have to come from the £400 Million A5 project that the then DRD Minister Conor Murphy rammed through. There must surely be many questions around this project given the guilt of Mr Murphy and the methods he employed whilst in office? Time will tell i guess but Danny Kennedy must now have one hell of a headache because of the actions of his predecessor!

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  34. Mick Fealty (profile) says:

    The public are not paying for this one. Three parties are severally liable: Willie Clarke, Cathal Boylan and the Sinn Fein party. Although this very much relates to business conducted by Mr Murphy (of which more later), this misadventure was purely a party affair.

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  35. [...] speaking out of turn. Hardly surprising since it so rarely happens in the chamber, that early (and often unreasonable/unsustainable) resort to the law has become [...]

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