A SINN Fein press release about a former director of Northern Ireland Water was “reckless, if not blatantly dishonest”, a court was told on Tuesday.
As a libel action brought against the party by former NI Water director Declan Gormley got under way, Mr Gormley’s lawyer told the jury that his client “was libelled in two press releases issued by Sinn Fein”.
Nicolas Hanna QC for Mr Gormley told Belfast’s High Court that during the course of the trial Mr Gormley – who was sacked by the then Sinn Fein Regional Development Minister Conor Murphy as a non executive NI Water director in 2010 – would detail how the allegations had affected his personal and business reputation.
Sinn Fein MLA Cathal Boylan and former MLA Willie Clarke deny that the words were defamatory.
Mr Gormley’s QC repeatedly said in his opening submission that Sinn Fein are not claiming in their defence the words used in the two press releases are true.
He said: “There is no suggestion in this case that they were true – that is sometimes a feature of these cases, but it is not the defendants’ case here.”
Therefore, Mr Hanna said that the jury’s main role is to decide whether the words are defamatory; if they decide that they are, then the judge will rule on whether qualified privilege applies and protects the defendants from libel.
Mr Hanna told the jury that as it is a civil case they would only have to find that “on the balance of probabilities” the words were defamatory. However, he explained that even if they do find the words defamatory, he said that the judge could decide that the statements are covered by qualified privilege. Sinn Fein argues that it was responding to nine attacks by Mr Gormley. The defendants have also pleaded the ‘Reynolds defence’ which Mr Hanna said is normally used to defend “responsible journalism” but could be pleaded by others.
Mr Hanna told the jury: “What they are saying is that they should be given the same protection from libel that journalists are given.”
Referring to Mr Gormley’s sacking, which Sinn Fein claims was because of procurement failures at NI Water, Mr Hanna told jurors that Mr Gormley “did not have any knowledge of or expertise in public sector procurement”.
He said that Mr Gormley was appointed on the same day as another non-executive director, Don Price, and that Mr Price chaired the board’s audit committee which looked at procurement, but Mr Price had kept his job while Mr Gormley was sacked.
He said that jurors “may well ask” why Mr Gormley, who had no direct responsibility for procurement, was sacked but Mr Price was not.
Mr Hanna argued that “whatever the reason for Mr Gormley’s dismissal, it was nothing to do with procurement and may have been for no other reason than he had the temerity to question the minutes of the meeting the independent review team had had with him”.
That three-strong review team was set up by Mr Murphy’s most senior civil servant, Paul Priestly, and comprised Deloitte consultant Jackie Henry, Phoenix Natural Gas chief executive Peter Dixon and former civil servant Glenn Thompson.
Mr Hanna said that Stormont’s cross-party Public Accounts Committee (PAC) had been “very critical” of the review team and and had identified three potential conflicts of interest involving members of the review team.
One of the Sinn Fein press releases from Mr Boylan had claimed that the PAC report “vindicates” Mr Murphy’s decision to sack the directors.
But Mr Hanna told jurors that “many of the problems” identified in procurement stretched back to the time of the Water Service, two years before Mr Gormley was appointed.
Mr Hanna said: “It is clear beyond any possibility of doubt that the PAC report did not vindicate the decision of Conor Murphy to sack Mr Gormley.”
Mr Hanna said: “The PAC report has been stood on its head by Mr Boylan. At the very least, it is reckless, if not blatantly dishonest.”
Mr Gormley will give evidence and be cross-examined on Wednesday before the defence case is laid out. The trial is expected to last into next week.