Sinn Féin's stance on Provo murders of gardaí at centre of libel case legal row

Sinn Féin’s stance on the killing of gardaí by members of the Provisional IRA is at the centre of a legal row in a defamation action being taken by party president Mary Lou McDonald against another TD.

Fianna Fáil’s Declan Breathnach is being sued for damages in the High Court by Ms McDonald over online comments she believes portrayed her as condoning the murders of members of An Garda Síochána.

Mr Breathnach denies defamation and claims Sinn Féin supported and continues to support the crimes of the Provisional IRA, which have included murders of gardaí.

But a row has erupted over the extent to which the historical connection between Sinn Féin and the Provisional IRA will feature in the trial.

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In a pre-trial motion, Ms McDonald is seeking to strike out parts of Mr Breathnach’s defence which focuses on those links and, in particular, the refusal by party members to condemn the murder of Detective Garda Jerry McCabe. The motion was briefly mentioned yesterday before Ms Justice Mary Rose Gearty, who adjourned the matter to Thursday.

The legal row comes at a sensitive time for both parties, with the country on the cusp of a general election.

Ms McDonald’s action against Louth TD Mr Breathnach centres around Twitter posts on October 11, 2018, the day the Disclosures Tribunal published its report on the treatment of Garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe.

Ms McDonald posted a tweet saying Sgt McCabe had been “repulsively denigrated”.

She added: “Shame on those who set out to destroy him.”

Mr Breathnach responded on Twitter asking Ms McDonald what had she had to say about “your compatriates [sic] association with those involved in the murder” of three named gardaí. Among those mentioned in the tweet were Garda Tony Golden, who was murdered by a dissident republican in 2015, and Sgt Patrick Morrissey, who was murdered by the INLA in 1985.

In her proceedings, Ms McDonald alleged the words used by Mr Breathnach meant her sympathy for Sgt McCabe and condemnation of those who set out to destroy him was “disingenuous and insincere”.

She claimed his tweet meant she failed to speak out against the murders of members of the force by dissident republicans and criminal gangs, and that she condoned such killings and was a hypocrite.

But in defence papers, lawyers for Mr Breathnach denied his tweet was defamatory in the manner alleged by Ms McDonald. Instead they said the tweet was more likely to have meant that while Ms McDonald’s support for Maurice McCabe was commendable, she should also recognise and acknowledge Sinn Féin supported and continued to support the crimes of the Provisional IRA, which included the murder of gardaí.

In the defence papers, it was claimed that at no stage had Ms McDonald acknowledged the killings of gardaí by the Provisional IRA were criminal acts of murder.

Ms McDonald’s legal team is now asking the High Court to strike out the alternative meaning put forward by Mr Breathnach and focus the case on what she claims his tweet meant. The motion was brought to the court by her counsel Tom Hogan SC. But Mr Breathnach’s counsel Darren Lehane BL told the court the motion was “misconceived”.

Ms McDonald, who is represented by prominent defamation solicitors Johnsons, claims her reputation was seriously injured and that she had been brought into public scandal, odium and contempt. She is seeking damages, the costs of the proceedings and an injunction restraining Mr Breathnach from publishing similar statements.

But in defence papers, lawyers for Mr Breathnach said that if Ms McDonald suffered any reputational damage, which was denied, this would have been minimal as the Fianna Fáil TD’s Twitter account only had 1,790 followers at the time and the tweet was removed after 10 days.

The defence filing said the tweet was removed following a complaint from Ms McDonald in order to seek an amicable resolution, even if Mr Breathnach believed her complaint lacked legitimacy.

It is also being argued that Mr Breathnach’s comments enjoyed qualified privilege as both he and Ms McDonald had a duty to express themselves freely and to say what they believe to be true in public life.

Mr Breathnach’s lawyers argued that Ms McDonald frequently made comments about people in public life, including other TDs, that challenged their integrity or capacity and statements they had made.

They said Mr Breathnach also had a duty to challenge utterances by people in public life, such as Ms McDonald, and argued the frank and incisive exchange of strong political statements was an essential part of the democratic process.

The defence filing said it damaged the democratic system for a prominent politician “to seek to censor and muzzle” statements made by another politician. It argued that as a public figure who was well able to be critical of others, Ms McDonald should recognise that others have a right to be critical of her.

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