Ex-IRA member Nicky Kehoe wins €3,500 in RTÉ defamation case

Sinn Féin political manager took action over comments on ‘Saturday with Claire Byrne’ show

The former IRA member Nicky Kehoe has won a defamation action against RTÉ and has been awarded damages of €3,500.

The jury found that the defamation justified damages of €10,000 but that the former Labour Party TD Joe Costello was 65 per cent liable for what had occurred.

Mr Costello was not party to the case and there is no judgment against him. The court heard the relatively low award would have cost implications for Mr Kehoe. That matter has been adjourned to a later date and a judgment award was issued in favour of Mr Kehoe.

Mr Kehoe, Sinn Féin's political manager in Dublin, claimed he was defamed on the Saturday with Claire Byrne show on RTÉ Radio 1 in October 2015. The claim was denied by RTÉ.

On the programme, Mr Costello said a member of the IRA army council controlled Sinn Féin councillors on Dublin City Council.

The jury began to consider its verdict late on Thursday having heard evidence over six days in the High Court before Mr Justice Bernard Barton.

The jury did not find that the broadcast meant that Mr Kehoe was a member of an illegal organisation or controlled the way Sinn Féin voted on Dublin City Council on behalf of the army council of the IRA.

However, it did find that the broadcast meant that Mr Kehoe was not a fit person to be involved in the democratic process.

Good name

Outside the court Mr Kehoe said the case had been about his good name and not about money.

“A jury of my peers has vindicated my name and I’m really, really happy with that because my name means a lot to me,” he told reporters. “I am a good person and I worked really hard for that. That’s the way I look at that.”

Asked about costs, he said he would face that issue when it arose.

Mr Kehoe was represented by two senior counsel and one junior counsel, while RTÉ was represented by one senior and one junior. It is likely the trial cost between €150,000 and €200,000 in legal fees.

Tom McGuire, the head of RTÉ Radio 1, said the €3,500 award was the lowest High Court defamation award in modern history. He said it was “a very positive” outcome and vindicated RTÉ’s decision to fight the case.

“It is really important than a public service broadcaster is able to host live vigorous political debate for the sake of our democracy,” he said.

The issues of costs or an appeal were matters to be discussed with the legal team, he said.

Ms Byrne said she was “really looking forward to going back to doing my job.”

However, last night Mr Costello expressed disappointment that a specific level of responsibility had been apportioned to him in the case.

“I am at loss to understand why I have been referred to in the judgment. I was not a party to the case; I was not called as a witness in the case; I didn’t name the plaintiff on the broadcast concerned; I was given no hearing in the case and no action was taken against me.”

He said he was not aware the case was taking place until he read the media reports.

“I am advised that the finding of the jury in relation to me has no legal significance or consequences,” he added.

During the trial Mr Kehoe, a former IRA hunger striker, claimed that the reputation he built up over the 26 years since he last came out of prison had been destroyed in “one swipe” by comments made on the programme. He said RTÉ should have shut down debate on the show as soon as his name was mentioned.

Ms Byrne said she followed station guidelines while handling “a curve ball” that had been thrown on the live radio broadcast.

In his closing speech on behalf of RTÉ last week, Cian Ferriter SC said Mr Kehoe had sued over a charge by Mr Costello on the show that the Sinn Féin member “is” a senior IRA member.

Mr Costello alleged that a former chief of staff of the IRA was at meetings of Dublin City Council telling Sinn Féin councillors how to vote.

‘Ripped to shreds’

In the ensuing exchange on the show between Mr Costello and Sinn Féin representative Eoin Ó Broin, Mr Ó Broin “ripped to shreds” the allegation made by Mr Costello, counsel said.

Mr Kehoe’s name was first used by Mr Ó Broin, then a councillor and now a TD, who went on to defend Mr Kehoe. By the end of that exchange, Mr Costello withdrew the allegation and said Mr Kehoe “was” a senior IRA member.

Mr Kehoe’s counsel Declan Doyle SC said any reasonable and rational analysis of the allegation was that Mr Kehoe was a member of the army council and was subverting democracy by giving instructions to Sinn Féin members of Dublin City Council.

Mr Kehoe had been upfront and was ashamed about his IRA past but this case was about someone being accused of subverting democracy in 2015, counsel said.

At the end of the exchanges on the radio show, the allegation against Mr Kehoe was still hanging there. It had not been put to bed as claimed by RTÉ, he said.

Colm Keena

Colm Keena

Colm Keena is an Irish Times journalist. He was previously legal-affairs correspondent and public-affairs correspondent

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