Ryanair challenge to 'gagging' order commences


THE HIGH Court has begun hearing proceedings by Ryanair over an alleged “gagging” order imposed on a TV debate about the private airline’s takeover proposals for Aer Lingus.

The restriction on Ryanair’s freedom of expression had been rendered necessary by Ryanair’s repeated breaches of takeover rules, the court was told yesterday.

The case, which continues today before Mr Justice Iarfhlaith O’Neill, is being heard in public following agreement between the sides over how sensitive commercial information would be dealt with during the case.

Ryanair is challenging a direction from the Irish Takeover Panel, the State body responsible for monitoring and supervising takeovers, that it could not take part in a Primetimedebate, scheduled for broadcast earlier this month, about its hostile takeover bid of Aer Lingus.

Earlier this week, the panel had asked the court to rule the proceedings should be heard in private on grounds confidential material which could affect the proper takeover procedure would have to be referred to.

Ryanair objected to the proceedings being heard in private. Aer Lingus, a notice party to the action, initially said it was neutral on that issue but later said it wanted certain aspects of the case to be heard “in camera”. Yesterday, it was agreed matters involving sensitive information would not be dealt with by the court. Mr Justice O’Neill said he was prepared to deal with the case without considering “extraneous matters”.

In the action, Ryanair claims its right to freedom of expression was breached by the panel direction last week that Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary and Aer Lingus chief Dermot Mannion could not participate in a head-to-head debate about the proposed takeover on RTÉ’s Primetime. Ryanair claims this was effectively a “gagging order” and wants the High Court to quash the panel’s direction.

It claims the panel’s “blanket ban” on taking part in such public debates is legally flawed, contrary to the requirements of the 1997 Irish Takeover Panel Act, disproportionate and unprecedented in either Ireland or the UK.

Ryanair also wants to quash the panel’s ruling the publication on behalf of the airline of an open letter in the Irish Independent on January 6th to the chairman of Aer Lingus constituted a breach of takeover rules.

The court is further asked to overturn the panel’s direction that Ryanair not make any announcements or publish any advertisements relating to its offer for Aer Lingus unless those are pre-approved by the panel.

The Takeover Panel rejects Ryanair’s claims and argues its role is to police the rules under which it operates and which are there to regulate the conduct of parties to a takeover. The restriction on Ryanair’s freedom of expression had been rendered necessary by Ryanair’s repeated breaches of the rules, it said.