The cosy world of the Irish blogosphere seems all aflutter (see here, here, and here, for example) over the actions of Irish Minister for Justice, Michael McDowell, who seems to have a gift for pouring Tabasco sauce over the stigmata of right-thinking Ireland. McDowell appears to have basically scuppered the recently established Centre for Public Inquiry (CPI) by claiming that its executive director, journalist Frank Connolly, is (literally) a fellow traveller of the IRA. McDowell initially used Dàil privilege to claim that he had reliable information from the Gardai that Connolly had travelled to Colombia with a senior IRA figure. (This trip supposedly occurred in 2000, before the August 11, 2001 arrest of Connolly’s brother, Niall, one of the ‘Colombia Three’ charged with supplying narco-terrorists FARC with bomb-making skills.)
In recent days, the controversy has been ratcheted up with the disclosure that McDowell previously passed on the information he shared with the Dàil to an Irish Independent journalist, Sam Smyth. Crucially, it was also revealed that the CPI’s funder Atlantic Philanthropies–set up by Irish-American billionaire Charles “Chuck” Feeney–is backing away from the project after being personally briefed by the Minister.By last night’s Questions and Answers, the outrage over McDowell’s manoeuvrings in some sections of the electorate could be gauged when the audience (usually packed with political hacks of various shades) applauded worthily when the chairman John Bowman read out a message from a viewer calling for McDowell’s resignation.
Perhaps I lack the respect owing to the law and the ‘due process’ (a phrase much on pundits’ lips at present) it entails, but I think the outrage and concern over McDowell’s actions are overblown. (And disproportionate given the gravity of Mr. Connolly’s alleged offence.) First, people have been claiming that McDowell has made allegations that first need to be proven in a court of law. This is the defence Connolly himself presented during a very dubious interview he gave to RTE, when he refused to say where exactly he was when he was not being in Colombia. (I believe the technical term for what the interviewer was seeking is an “alibi”). Perhaps Connolly bowed to the precedence of legal process because he;s pretty certain that the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) will not bring a case. As the DPP never reveals the reasons why it decides not to proceed with prosecutions, its operations are opaque to the public. However, there are many instances, perhaps the majority, when an offence has clearly been committed but the DPP believes that it cannot bring a case successfully to court. McDowell, correctly in my mind, decided that legal technicalities should not prevent him from sharing what he is sure is the truth -namely that a character with close links to paramilitaries is the head of an organization that has set itself up as an arbiter of standards in Irish public life.
Let’s be clear about this–McDowell hasn’t jailed Connolly without trial, but he has put his political reputation on the line by revealing information that he believes to be in the public interest. Newspapers make similar judgement calls all the time.The fact that McDowell decided to pass on his concerns to a paper merely highlights his conviction that he’s right. To clear his name (and earn several hundred thousand euros), Connolly merely has to take Independent Newspapers to court and tell a jury where he actually was during this supposedly fictional jaunt to Colombia. Given that fact that this story about travelling to Colombia first appeared several years ago, Connolly’s reluctance to clear his name and give “Dr.” O’Reilly’s outfit a bloody nose before now is baffling.
Moreover, Connolly’s outrage over allegations being made outside of the courtroom is a bit rich considering he’s head of an organization dedicated to exposing corruption and shady dealings. Nowhere could I find on the CPI’s pseudo-official-looking website any information on what avenues of redress were open to those who believed they have been poorly treated by the centre. At least, McDowell is an elected representative. In contrast, the CPI is a group of self-appointed ethicists bankrolled by an American billionaire. What exactly is ‘Public’ about that?
Meanwhile, the dispute continues to bubble. The Irish Times reports:
The chairman of the Centre for Public Inquiry (CPI) has described allegations made by Minster for Justice Michael McDowell against CPI executive director Frank Connolly as a “drumhead courtmartial”. Retired High Court judge Mr Justice Feargus Flood, who chairs the CPI, said Mr Connolly had the right to presumed innocence and due process.
I love the ‘drumhead courtmartial’ -typical of the meaningless Gilbert & Sullivan rhetoric that resounds in the halls of the Four Goldmines. Can we next expect Christy Moore & friends to announce a benefit concert to keep the CPI going?