Verdict due in councillors’ defamation case

Wicklow county manager being sued over press release from him a year ago

A verdict in a case in which two Wicklow councillors are suing the county manager for defamation is expected at Wicklow Circuit Court this morning.

Barry Nevin of Bray and Tommy Cullen of Baltinglass are suing county manager Eddie Sheehy, arising out of a press release Mr Sheehy wrote and released in April 2013.

In it, Mr Sheehy named the councillors as being among three elected members whose concerns over a €3 million land deal led to the appointment of an investigator, Séamus Woulfe SC, by the Department of the Environment.

Mr Woulfe’s report, which was issued on April 23rd last year, found “almost all” of the councillors’ concerns were “not well-founded” or “misconceived”. Mr Sheehy told the four-day hearing that on receiving the report, he issued an immediate press release saying the investigation had cost the council €200,000 which had been incurred as a result of the “unfounded and misconceived allegations” of the named councillors.

Colm P Condon SC, for the councillors, said this ignored their duty to seek the highest standards of probity in such land deals. He said the Woulfe report had found substance in some of the councillors’ concerns, but even if it had not, the councillors were still carrying out their duties in line with the code of conduct for councillors, published in 2004.

Mr Condon recalled Mr Sheehy had given evidence that he as manager had lost High Court proceedings, also at a cost, but no press release was issued in relation to that.

He said even Mr Sheehy could not remember a time when such a release had been issued before. Mr Condon said Mr Sheehy had continued to publicly state his position, even though he had been warned the matter was before the courts and so exemplary damages should be awarded to the councillors.

"Honest opinion"
Luán Ó Braonáin SC, for Mr Sheehy, said the words complained of were true and the manager was covered by qualified privilege, in that he had a duty to report to the people of Wicklow on important matters, particularly on financial matters. Mr Ó Braonáin also said the press release represented an "honest opinion".

Mr Condon said the press release, taken in its entirety, was not true. He said a legal example of qualified privilege, cited by Mr Ó Braonáin, related to matters raised in a council chamber, not in a press release and, in relation to the third point, he said Mr Sheehy had not qualified his press release with the title “opinion”.

Judge Thomas E O’Donnell said he would give his verdict this morning.