Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan's former assistant says Saoirse McHugh skinny dipping tweet an ‘impulsive joke’

Belgian court told Diarmuid Hayes still had access to MEP’s Twitter account after contract not renewed

A former parliamentary assistant to MEP Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan has told a Brussels court a post he sent from the politician’s Twitter account about former Green Party election candidate Saoirse McHugh skinny-dipping was an “impulsive joke”.

At a full hearing in the Palace of Justice in Brussels, film-maker Diarmuid Hayes, who worked for Mr Flanagan for 18 months, said the pair had fallen out at the time of the incident as his contract was not renewed.

The criminal case centred around a post that Mr Hayes published on Mr Flanagan’s Twitter, now X, account, to which he still had access through a third party app, in the early hours of September 28th, 2020.

The post stated “Sapirse mchugh photo skinny dipping” [sic] and led people to believe that someone operating Mr Flanagan’s account had intended to search online for photographs of the Co Mayo woman, but had posted the intended search words on Twitter by accident.


Following a police investigation, Mr Hayes was charged with fraudulently intending to damage the reputation of Mr Flanagan.

Speaking in court on Wednesday, Mr Hayes apologised for putting the post on Mr Flanagan’s X account. He said it had been a joke and an “impulsive decision” that he had taken late one night aftersmoking cannabis.

He said he did not think through the implications of what he was doing and “didn’t for a minute” think the post would receive the extensive media coverage that it did.

The court head Mr Hayes began working as Mr Flanagan’s parliamentary assistant in January 2018 and his contract ended in July 2019 after that year’s European elections.

“I feel like I wasn’t treated quite well in the last months and then after the election I was informed without any explanation that my contract wouldn’t be renewed,” he said.

Mr Hayes described the relationship with Mr Flanagan as “very complicated” and said an initial offer of a one-year contract extension was later revoked.

Belgian public prosecutor Thomas Descamps sought a one-year prison sentence for Mr Hayes, which he said he would not be opposed to being suspended. In his submission, Mr Descamps said Mr Hayes had been motivated by “revenge” and intended to harm Mr Flanagan by posting from his account. He said he had thrown the politician’s “honour to the dogs”.

The court heard Mr Hayes retained access to the social media account after his employment concluded through a third party app, Tweetcaster, despite Mr Flanagan having changed his password.

Charlotte Henderickx, lawyer for Mr Hayes, petitioned Judge Isabelle Jacquemin to sentence her client to community service.

Addressing the court, Mr Flanagan said the episode had been “traumatising” for him and his family. He criticised Mr Hayes for not putting his “hand up” and publicly admitting that he had made the post in the days afterwards.

“If he had come out straight away, I would immediately have been cleared,” he said. “This was anything but an accident, it was a cold, calculated, skillfully carried out attempt to destroy me.”

The Midlands-North-West MEP said his wife and his daughters had received abuse as a result of people thinking he had made the post. Mr Flanagan said the level of online abuse he received over the post only started to “slow down” when the matter first came before the court.

“I am going to pay a price for this forever. It will not be as intense, it will just be there, a little trickle forever. People don’t care about what’s true,” he said.

Mr Hayes, who lost a job at the European Commission due to the criminal proceedings against him causing issues around his security clearance, said he had recently started working for a non-profit organisation.

He said he had tried to “settle this case outside of court” but Mr Flanagan made it clear he wished to resolve the issue “in the courtroom”. He said he attempted to limit the potential damage by deleting the post shortly after it was published, but that a screengrab of it had been taken by then and posted online.

When police investigating the matter called to his door, Mr Hayes said he “panicked” and admitted he should have “owned up” at that point.

The judge said she would issue a sentence in the case on March 25th.

Speaking outside the court afterwards, Mr Flanagan said his name had been cleared.

“I’m relieved that we are finally coming to the end of this process, it’s been torture for the last 3½ years,” he said. “I live in a small town, everyone wouldn’t be a fan of mine, I’ve plenty of supporters there but some people are only delighted to use this sort of thing against you.”

Mr Flanagan said his picture appeared in “every newspaper in the country” after the post and that he did not think it would appear as prominently following the court case.

“I don’t think the impact of this will ever be gone out of my life,” he said.

When he checked his Twitter account the morning after the tweet was posted, he said it had gone “viral” and he thought he had gone “crazy”.

“My second thought was any politician who claims they have been hacked, they’ve never been believed, in fact they’ve just been ridiculed,” he said.

Mr Hayes did not wish to comment after the hearing.

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Jack Power

Jack Power

Jack Power is acting Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times