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.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty