In defence of parliament

The Dáil is an essential cornerstone of our democracy; its proceedings are privileged so they can be reported freely by the media without fear or prosecution

 

Article 15.13 of the Constitution provides that members of the Oireachtas “shall not, in respect of any utterance in either House, be amenable to any court or any authority other than the House itself.” And its preceding article provides the necessary corollary of that freedom of speech – that proceedings are “privileged” so that they can be reported freely by the media without fear of prosecution.

Such privilege , described by the authoritative Erskine May, the British bible on parliament and the law, as “rights which are absolutely necessary for the due execution of its powers”, has long roots, back to the 1689 Bill of Rights, and is also enshrined in the US Constitution of 1787. It was an essential cornerstone in the establishment of the primacy of parliament.

In AG v Hamilton (No 2), Mrs Justice Denham, now Chief Justice, said of the same principle: “This powerful non-amenability is granted for the benefit of democracy and the people ... It is a cornerstone of democracy that members of the Oireachtas have free speech in the legislature. This right to free speech is for the protection of the democratic process and in doing so it protects parliament and deputies in parliament ... By this non-amenability for utterances in either House, save to the House, the legislature retains its separate strength free from any shackles an executive might wish to fit.” Or from overreaching judges, if they are so minded.

The attempt to use the courts to gag reporting of TD Catherine Murphy represents not just a dangerous attack on the public interest right to know the details of the banking arrangements of one the country’s richest men, Mr Denis O’Brien, but a deeply worrying erosion of a pillar of our parliamentary system. On both grounds it faces challenged in the courts by The Irish Times and RTÉ.

Ms Murphy’s comments, as former attorney general Michael McDowell argued in these pages , were “not an irrelevant contribution artificially and gratuitously thrown into some other piece of Dáil business”. In discussing the Anglo bailout and the treatment of one its largest customers, Ms Murphy was raising matters of key importance to taxpayers. “The nature of her concerns,” he argued, “and their scale ... takes the matter well outside the ‘private’ in the personal sense of that term. If her remarks concerned a company’s affairs, no-one would see them as in any way “private” even though many companies are private.”

If Ms Murphy’s comments were an abuse of her parliamentary privilege in breaching privacy rights or were factually incorrect, as Mr O’Brien’s spokesman insists they were, then she can properly be brought to book by her peers in the Dáil Committee on Procedure and Privileges, as was Ms Mary Lou McDonald recently. She should not, nor should the media organisations which report her, be made answerable to the courts.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.