Irish Mail on Sunday editor appears before Charleton Tribunal

Conor O’Donnell says he authorised crime correspondent to try to interview Ms D

Conor O’Donnell arrives at the Charleton Tribunal at Dublin Castle. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

The editor of the Irish Mail on Sunday has given evidence to the Charleton Tribunal that supports the evidence of his crime correspondent, who is in dispute with a colleague over matters to do with Sgt Maurice McCabe.

The tribunal, which is investigating an alleged smear campaign against Sgt McCabe, was told by Conor O’Donnell that in 2014 he gave authorisation for his crime correspondent Debbie McCann to travel to Co Cavan to try to interview a woman being called Ms D.

He said he was told by his news editor Robert Cox that Ms McCann had been told that Sgt McCabe had been the subject of an allegation that he had sexually assaulted a young woman and that the Director of Public Prosecutions had directed that no charges be brought. He said he was told Ms McCann wanted to travel to interview the young woman.

Sebastian Hamilton arrives at the Charleton Tribunal at Dublin Castle. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

He told Patrick Marrinan SC, for the tribunal, that he was later told by Mr Cox that Ms McCann had called to the door of the Ms D home and been told that she did not want to be interviewed.


He believed he was told this on the day, after Ms McCann had phone from Cavan to say what had happened.

“I said fine. We did no more on it. Sometime later, Debbie went on maternity leave,” he said. “We left it at that and never discussed it again.”

Garda source

Responding to Michael McDowell SC, for Sgt McCabe, he said it was likely that Ms McCann got her information from a Garda source but said he had no information about the matter.

The tribunal has heard that in 2006 Sgt McCabe was the subject of a historical claim of child sex abuse from Ms D, the daughter of a Garda. The accusation was dismissed by the DPP.

Alison O’Reilly, a journalist with the Irish Daily Mail, has said Ms McCann told her in 2014 that she had met with Ms D and interviewed her and that the story was not published on the instructions of group editor of the Irish Daily Mail, Sebastian Hamilton.

Ms McCann and Ms D have both told the tribunal that Ms D never gave an interview to Ms McCann.

Mr O’Donnell said he never discussed the attempt to get an interview with Ms D, with Mr Hamilton. Mr Hamilton told the tribunal that it was not the case, as claimed by Ms O’Reilly, that he’d stopped the alleged interview being published. “That’s entirely incorrect. That did not happen.”

Sebastian Hamilton arrives at the Charleton Tribunal at Dublin Castle. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

The tribunal has heard that Ms O’Reilly is currently in dispute with her employer, the publisher of the Irish Mail titles, and has two cases pending before the High Court.

Mr O’Donnell told Conor Dignam SC, for An Garda Siochána, that in general terms when his newspaper heard of an allegation, they then stress tested the information provided. He said they would hold the story until they were satisfied the person against whom an allegation had been made, had an opportunity to respond.

He said this can allow for the person against whom the accusation is being made to point out that they are wrong, or to “come clean” and change the dynamics of the story. “Everything has to be stress tested.”

Responding to the tribunal chairman, Mr Justice Peter Charleton, Mr Dignam said that when it was reported in 2016 that it was being claimed that a smear campaign against Sgt McCabe was being alleged by a senior Garda officer, it became "an accepted fact" that the then Garda commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan was involved, without her being granted an opportunity to deny the claim before the allegation was published. He said the same was the case with former commissioner, Martin Callinan.

‘Why are we here?’

Mr Justice Charleton said he was not sure whether he was reporting on the media. Mr Dignam said the issue could be relevant to the question the chairman had asked earlier in the tribunal’s proceedings: “Why are we here?”

Mr Hamilton, responding to Kathleen Leader BL, for the tribunal, said he did not believe he should have to discuss who he met or who he spoke to. “I believe it is not appropriate to ask any journalist those questions.” He said he was saying this as a third generation newspaper editor in his family.

He made the comment when asked if he knew Ms O’Sullivan. He said he had never been negatively briefed about Sgt McCabe by anybody.

The tribunal has been asking journalists if they were ever the subject of negative briefings about Sgt McCabe, particularly by the former head of the Garda Press Office, Supt Dave Taylor. A number are claiming journalistic privilege.

In a protected disclosure in 2016, Supt Taylor said he had been ordered in 2013 by the then commissioner, Mr Callinan, to conduct a smear campaign against Sgt McCabe, and that this was known to Ms O’Sullivan. Both former commissioners have denied the claim.

Publication of the claim in the Irish Examiner in October 2016 provoked a massive political controversy, during which a number of politicians called for Ms O’Sullivan’s resignation.

Witness statements

The chairman criticised the Mail publications for taking five months to give the tribunal information it had about Ms McCann’s visit to the Ms D household, and pointed out that it had only disclosed the event after the tribunal had learned of the visit from others.

In early 2017 the tribunal wrote to four Mail journalists seeking their co-operation. In a response some weeks later on their behalf, Micheal Kealey, solicitor, said they would not be supplying witness statements for reasons of journalistic privilege.

However, Ms McCann later confirmed to the tribunal that she had called to Ms D’s home in 2014 but that her request for an interview was unsuccessful.

Mr Justice Charlton suggested the publisher decided not to tell the tribunal about the Ms D visit and to wait and see what the tribunal itself discovered. At the same time, he said, addressing the witness, “you were thundering in your editorials about the imperative of tribunals.”

Mr Hamilton said that from the beginning he was “deeply concerned” about any potential breach of a journalist’s obligation to protect sources.

Mr Justice Charleton said “you were sitting on your hands leaving me sitting in this castle way from my other work” and waiting to see what the tribunal would discover.

Mr Hamilton said that if there was “a perception of a failure to give information” then it was due to a potential risk to a journalist’s duty to protect sources.

The tribunal has heard that in early 2017, Ms O’Reilly was in contact with Labour Party leader Brendan Howlin.

Later that same day, Mr Howlin told the Dail he had been told by a journalist who had direct knowledge of the matter that Ms O’Sullivan had told journalists in 2013 and 2014 of allegations of sexual crimes being committed by Sgt McCabe.

The tribunal has heard Ms O’Reilly had spoken to Mr Howlin about what she said she had been told by Ms McCann.

Mr Hamilton said he believed at the time the “explosive” claim about Ms O’Sullivan should be investigated and that, if it was discovered not to be true, then Mr Howlin would be made look “foolish”.

He said the unsubstantiated claim by Mr Howlin about Ms O’Sullivan had contributed to the establishment of the tribunal.

Colm Keena

Colm Keena

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