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Sinn Féin’s growing litigiousness towards media is a clear trend

Political opponents and many in media perceive an attempt to muzzle criticism of party

Mary Lou McDonald's High Court action for defamation against RTÉ, lodged on Monday, is the latest in a series of libel actions taken or threatened by Sinn Féin politicians.

While libel actions by politicians have been rare, in recent years there has been a rash of cases taken or threatened by Sinn Féin politicians that have sometimes resulted in very substantial settlements or awards.

The party denies that there is any policy of encouraging its representatives to pursue media outlets who they feel have wronged them, but the trend is unmistakable. Last year Cork TD Donncha Ó Laoghaire settled a libel case against RTÉ for a sum believed to be in excess of €150,000 after comments on Liveline. Party whip Aengus Ó Snodaigh also received a settlement after comments on the same programme.

The former party leader Gerry Adams – who has previously won a settlement in a libel action against the Sunday World – is suing the BBC over claims relating to the IRA informer Denis Donaldson.

Most libel cases never reach the courts, as publishers or defendants elect to settle rather than risk fighting the case

Adams also won an apology from Louth local radio station LMFM for comments about the Tom Oliver case, regarding a Protestant farmer who was murdered by the IRA, some years ago.

Cavan-Monaghan TD Matt Carthy initiated proceedings against a Fianna Fáil activist over a tweet (he declined to say whether the action had been pursued or concluded), while one journalist lists off nine separate instances where Sinn Féin politicians have sent solicitors' letters threatening libel actions in Northern Ireland.

Bobby Storey funeral

Most libel cases never reach the courts, as publishers or defendants elect to settle rather than risk fighting the case. A few weeks ago Fine Gael Senator Regina Doherty apologised to Sinn Féin finance spokesman Pearse Doherty for comments she made on Twitter about the Bobby Storey funeral. The apology and settlement followed the receipt of a solicitor's letter.

Sinn Féin’s political opponents – and many people in the media – see all this as part of a strategy to muzzle criticism of the party by trying to generate a “chilling effect” to dissuade opponents and the media from robust criticism and investigation of the party, its members and its controversial history. If so, it is a tactic often used by powerful people and institutions to discourage scrutiny.

This is not McDonald's first defamation case. In 2015 she and Doherty received a settlement reported to be more than €100,000

One Government source also marvelled that Maria Bailey – the former Fine Gael TD who tool a personal injuries action after falling off a swing in a hotel bar – saw her political career ended after an ill-advised action for damages. “But nobody ever mentions Sinn Féin TDs looking for money,” the source says.

This is not McDonald’s first defamation case. In 2015 she and Doherty received a settlement – reported to be more than €100,000 – from the Irish Examiner over a column and editorial relating to the Máiría Cahill case.

Brief controversy

The current case taken by McDonald also concerns comments about the Cahill case (though Cahill was not mentioned by name) during a radio discussion about the National Women’s Council rally in February. The council did not invite any government representatives to speak, but McDonald was a keynote speaker. It flared as a brief controversy in advance of the rally.

Cahill has told in harrowing detail how she was raped as a teenager by an IRA man. The IRA subsequently established a sort of kangaroo court in which they brought her face to face with her attacker. A subsequent prosecution was abandoned when Cahill withdrew her co-operation, citing a loss of confidence in the PSNI, which later apologised to her.

Cahill has been a trenchant critic of Sinn Féin and the IRA for the way they dealt with her abuse. Earlier this year, Mary Lou McDonald said she had apologised to Cahill and wished to “amplify” that apology. But today Cahill says it is “a bit hard to amplify an apology which wasn’t really an apology in the first place”.

Sinn Féin has declined to comment on McDonald’s case but adds: “Defamation laws exist to protect the rights of individuals in the face of false claims or accusations being made about them. Everyone has the right to defend their reputation.”