Former Regional Development Minister Conor Murphy and former Sinn Fein press officer Niall O’Donnghaile may be called as witnesses in a libel action against the party, a jury has been told.
Mr Murphy, the MP for Newry and Armagh, and Mr O’Donnghaile, the Lord Mayor of Belfast last year, could be called to testify in the case brought by former Northern Ireland Water director Declan Gormley.
On Monday, as a jury was sworn in at Belfast High Court for a case that is now expected to last until the start of next week, Mr Justice Gillen told potential jurors that if they knew either Mr Murphy or Mr O’Donnghaile they should leave.
The case revolves around an allegation by Mr Gormley — a businessman who along with others was sacked by Mr Murphy as a director of NI Water two years ago — that two Sinn Fein press releases defamed him.
The party, along with MLA Cathal Boylan and former MLA Willie Clarke, deny that the press releases were defamatory. Part of the defendants’ case is that they had qualified privilege — which allows for defamatory comments in certain proscribed circumstances — as the press releases were a ‘reply to an attack’ by Mr Gormley.
In libel trials the defendant has the right to request a jury trial, and Sinn Fein has used that provision.
At a preliminary hearing last week, counsel for both parties agreed to a series of rules for choosing a jury in an attempt to ensure that both parties receive a fair trial, given the significant political element to the case.
This morning Mr Justice Gillen told the jury panel that anyone who is a member of, or closely related to a member of, any of the five parties which comprise the Stormont Executive should not sit on the jury out of an “abundance of caution” to ensure that the trial is fair.
Listing several conditions of serving on the jury, the judge also said that any potential jurors who knew any of the parties to the case or who knew either Mr Murphy or Mr O’Donnghaile should make that known.
The judge stressed that the two politicians were “not necessarily going to be called (as witnesses), but they may be called”.
He told potential jurors: “It’s very important that everyone gets a fair crack of the whip - both the plaintiff and the defendants.”
Mr Justice Gillen also told potential jurors that if they were members of, or related to members of, the Assembly’s public accounts committee or were civil servants at the Department of Regional Development and dealt with NI Water they should leave.
From those who remained, a jury of six men and one woman was selected at random and sworn in.
Mr Justice Gillen told the jury that it is now rare for a jury to hear civil actions but said that “we jealously guard those cases where we do have juries” and told them: “Your role is absolutely vital to the administration of justice.”
He told jurors that the trial may attract some publicity but that they should try not to read newspapers, watch television news reports of the trial or read about it on the Internet.
Before sending the jury away ahead of the trial’s commencement on Tuesday morning, the judge said that there were “a number of complex legal issues in this case” and that the jury’s sole role would be to decide on the facts.