THE sacked Northern Ireland Water director suing Sinn Fein for libel met SDLP MLA John Dallat in an Antrim hotel just after the 2010 water crisis and helped him with a press release, the High Court was told today.
During a full day of cross-examination on the third day of the trial in Belfast, Declan Gormley said that he had met Mr Dallat at the hotel near Junction One in Antrim for about an hour in January 2011.
For about five hours today Mr Gormley faced repeated questions about his evidence the previous day, when he had said that he had never been an SDLP member and never met MLAs before being sacked.
Sinn Fein MLA Cathal Boylan and former MLA Willie Clarke are being sued by Mr Gormley for libel over two press releases. They deny that the releases were libellous and are claiming qualified privilege, arguing that they were responding to attacks, some of which they claim were conducted by the SDLP on Mr Gormley’s behalf.
Yesterday Sinn Fein’s barrister Martin McCann took Mr Gormley to an email which he sent on January 12, 2011 to Mr Dallat. Mr Gormley, who the previous day said that he had approached all the main parties about his sacking, said that the email was sent after he had met the MLA at the hotel, which was near Mr Gormley’s home and on Mr Dallat’s way back from the Assembly to his East Londonderry constituency.
Mr Gormley said that Mr Dallat gave him a draft statement “scribbled down in his handwriting” earlier that day at the Assembly which was strongly critical of the then Sinn Fein minister Conor Murphy’s sacking of him and three other NI Water directors. He said that he was meeting Mr Dallat to discuss his sacking and near the end of the meeting Mr Dallat gave him the document to check its accuracy.
Mr Gormley said that he took the page away, “added to and probably deleted parts of it” before typing and emailing the statement to Mr Dallat, who in the end decided not to release it to the media.
When asked why in it he had described former NI Water chief Laurence MacKenzie as “the now exited and disgraced former chief executive”, Mr Gormley said that was because it had emerged after the water crisis that Mr MacKenzie was a convicted embezzler.
Mr McCann put it to Mr Gormley that his evidence was “slightly implausible” and asked him why Mr Dallat did not release the statement, to which Mr Gormley replied: “I think you’d have to ask Mr Dallat.” Later he accepted that the statement may have been defamatory.
Pressed again and again about how well he knew Mr Dallat and how frequently they met, Mr Gormley said: “I went to him with what I perceived to be an injustice”, later adding: “I don’t have any problem with Mr Dallat fighting my corner”.
However, he said that Mr Dallat “certainly wasn’t in the habit of sending me press releases to approve” and said that he had limited contact with the MLA.
Mr McCann also put it to Mr Gormley that he had written a letter to the Belfast Telegraph threatening it with libel action if it continued to report his sacking in the manner which it had been doing. Mr Gormley initially said he had “no recollection” of the letter, but, when it was passed to him in the witness box he confirmed its accuracy.
Mr Gormley told the jury of six men and one woman that he had initially failed to remember the letter because of “the huge amount of paperwork” involved in his campaign to clear his name over the last two years.
Earlier, Mr Gormley had been repeatedly pressed by Mr McCann about what he said were discrepancies between what Mr Gormley had told Stormont’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) last year and what he had said in a subsequent legal writ.
The barrister quoted Mr Gormley as having said: “The permanent secretary misled the DRD Minister, who, based on flawed evidence, had no choice but to act”.
However, in a writ later served on Mr Murphy and others, Mr Gormley alleged that the minister abused his office in dismissing four NI Water non-executive directors, allegations which are denied.
Mr McCann put it to Mr Gormley that the PAC submission and the writ were incompatible.
Mr Gormley insisted that the two statements “amount to the same thing” and told jurors that when he said the minister had “no choice but to act”, he meant that “politically” Mr Murphy had no choice but to dismiss the directors but that he must have by that stage realised that there were problems with the advice upon which his decision was based.
Dwelling on the issue at some length, Mr McCann put it to Mr Gormley: “Your answer doesn’t make sense”.
Mr Gormley replied: “I’ve offered my explanation for it” and added that Mr Murphy “went along with the advice even though it was flawed”.
Eventually, after repeated questioning about the issue, Mr Gormley accepted that an ordinary reader could take it from his PAC submission that Mr Murphy was misled and not part of the alleged conspiracy.
The trial continues on Friday.