Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris has said he did not leak the Katherine Zappone recommendation from Cabinet.
His comments follow an allegation made by Sinn Féin TD Matt Carthy under Dáil privilege on Wednesday that Mr Harris had leaked the information from Cabinet.
Asked if he was responsible for the leak, the Minister told reporters at the Technological University, Dublin: “No, I’m not – and what happened yesterday was an extraordinary misuse of Dáil privilege.”
Referring to an interview with Mr Carthy on RTÉ’s News at One on Thursday, which he said showed Mr Carthy had no evidence for the claim, Mr Harris said he is strongly considering a complaint to the Oireachtas Committee on Procedures and Privileges in relation to the assertions.
In the interview, Mr Carthy had been asked if he had evidence to back up his allegation, to which he replied: “No.”
He then added:"Because I didn't carry out the sting operation, Fine Gael did."
Mr Carthy said his claims were based on “general knowledge and generally accepted knowledge” around Leinster House.
Standing over his statement, he insisted his actions in the Dáil were “entirely consistent with the principle and reason why parliamentary privilege is in place”.
Asked why he didn’t make a complaint to An Garda Síochána over his claim, he said: “Because I haven’t got the basis of the evidence, because that evidence is in the hands of Fine Gael and I would encourage them to do so.”
Following the interview, Mr Harris said: “Dáil privilege is there for a reason, it’s certainly not there to engage in tittle tattle. . . Deputy Carthy said he was repeating what he believes to be general knowledge. He was making a very serious charge on the record of the House in the absence of my presence there. It was untrue and it was a misuse of Dáil privilege.”
He disputed the suggestion there had been a “sting operation”, and said he had not been party to one, when he was asked about reports a senior Minister had been the victim of a ruse by a party colleague related to the leak.
Asked specifically if he had been questioned by the Tánaiste in relation to such an operation, he said he had not.
He also suggested that the substance of the supposed sting, whereby a senior Minister was allegedly fed an untrue story about a junior colleague appearing on radio, which in turn prompted media inquiries to the junior colleague, did not necessarily provide a link to any leak from Cabinet.
“Conflating stories . . . with very serious matters in relation to the leaking of information from Cabinet, is an unfair and untrue conflation,” he said.
He said he has spoken to the Tánaiste, who he said was completely taken aback. He has not yet spoken to Taoiseach Micheál Martin regarding the assertions.
He said Mr Carthy “made comments that if they were said outside [the Dáil] would be defamatory”. Asked if he would challenge Mr Carthy to repeat the assertion outside the Dáil, he said he “has other things to be doing . . . let’s get on with it”, and criticised Sinn Féin for how it had used parliamentary privilege.
Mr Harris added that it was matter for the Taoiseach to decide whether to investigate the leak.
Earlier, Mr Harris said in the Dáil: “Yesterday I was named in this House in my unavoidable absence. What was said in my view was a misuse of Dáil privilege and I want the record of this House to show it was untrue.”
Tánaiste Leo Varadkar rounded on Sinn Féin afterwards and claimed the party would “trample on people’s rights in Government”.
The comments on Thursday were made after Sinn Féin finance spokesman Pearse Doherty referred to a series of Cabinet leaks and to reports that Mr Varadkar had “supposedly confronted the senior Minister responsible following a Fine Gael ‘sting’ operation by one of your junior Ministers”.
Mr Doherty challenged Mr Varadkar about the allegations and asked if he had shared the details of that operation with Mr Martin, during testy exchanges.
The Tánaiste said that what Mr Carthy did was wrong and it was an “abuse of privilege” to “make an allegation against a Cabinet member based on rumour and no evidence whatsoever”.
He said he had “no evidence that the particular leak you referred to was done by a Cabinet member. It wasn’t even accurate. It wasn’t even correct or entirely correct and I have yet to see any evidence to that effect.”
Earlier, Mr Carthy said the leak had to come from a Cabinet minister, because the information, “contained within the media reports almost immediately after the Cabinet meeting, in fact in some cases while the meeting was still sitting, didn’t just relate to the appointment but also to deliberations that happened at Cabinet.”
Mr Varadkar said he hoped the Committee on Procedure and Privileges would examine the matter.
When Mr Doherty again asked if the Tánaiste had informed the Taoiseach, Mr Varadkar told him not to believe “what you read in the papers”.
The Fine Gael leader also referred back to a Dáil incident in 2015, when the now Sinn Féin leader, Mary Lou McDonald, also used Dáil privilege to name six people who allegedly had illegal off-shore bank accounts and cheated on tax.
He said the Dáil Committee on Procedure and Privileges had found against Ms McDonald, but no action was taken.
Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe said the allegation against Mr Harris was “outrageous” and repeated his colleague’s criticism of Sinn Féin. “He has always conducted himself to the highest of standards and Sinn Féin are just showing yet again their willingness to make charges against members of Fine Gael and the Government, and they’ve been refuted by Simon and myself.”
Earlier, a Fine Gael Minister suggested Mr Martin could establish an investigation into the alleged Cabinet leak.
Minister of State for Overseas Development Aid and Diaspora Colm Brophy said: "I would like to see if somebody would check out who has access to the information when an appointment is being made like that, because there are obviously other people apart from Cabinet Ministers who see information going into Cabinet . . . We don't know it was a Cabinet Minister."
Mr Brophy said, “If the Taoiseach wishes to set up a leak investigation, the Taoiseach can and is fully entitled to do that.”
On the accusation made by Mr Carthy, he said: “It is almost scary the way Sinn Féin acted last night in relation to this . . . God forbid, if they were to be in power, what type of abuses would they engage in.”
"They have a motion of no confidence which, maybe for them, isn't attracting the level of attention they wanted out of it," Mr Brophy told RTÉ's Morning Ireland. "So they come out with an allegation with no substance, no back-up, no nothing. A deputy stands up, under privilege in the Dáil, names somebody without any proof at all.
“I think that is an appalling way to do business, it is an abuse of Dáil privilege and I would say it shows something about the way Sinn Féin think about the way they can behave.”