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Irish Independent: Ethics watchdog forced to close over libel risk

Ethics watchdog forced to close over libel risk
 Apr 10, 2006

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Senan Molony,Political Correspondent

THE Centre for Public Inquiry which probed national controversies and raised hackles among politicians, leading to a blazing Dail row, will be formally put into liquidation on Wednesday.

The former CPI chairman, retired tribunal judge Feargus Flood, confirmed last night: “The premises is closed, the last cheques are going out, and the organisation is being dismantled.”

The Irish Independent learned a final decision was taken to dissolve the body after attempts to take out substantial libel insurance with a major London firm eventually came to nought.

Some of the directors made it clear they were not prepared to continue in such an unsecured situation, although their own legal advice was that the likelihood of individual directors being held personally liable for the actions of a public limited company was a marginal one.

The centre was established with $4m in funding from billionaire US philanthropist, Chuck Feeney, with a view to probing issues of public interest to make sure they were free from any abuse of power or corruption. It issued two well-received dossiers – on the land and development processes that saw a large hotel rise up opposite Trim Castle, and on the circumstances surrounding the Shell pipeline at Rossport.

But the organisation's death knell was sounded when Mr Feeney withdrew his funding last December following allegations made under Dail privilege by Justice Minister Michael McDowell.

Mr McDowell declared matters in a Dail reply reflecting on the circumstances in which the centre's chief investigator, Frank Connolly, allegedly made a trip to Colombia.

Mr McDowell said Mr Connolly – a brother of Colombia Three member Niall Connolly – had travelled to the South American republic with the former IRA commanding officer in the Maze prison, Padraig Wilson, on a false passport.

Mr Connolly, in turn, denied he had gone to Colombia and said that the person photographed using the passport at Bogota Airport was not him.

It later emerged that Mr McDowell had had a personal meeting in Dublin with Mr Feeney at which he acquainted him with the details of a garda file on the incident. The DPP directed three years ago that there should be no prosecution of Mr Connolly.

After the withdrawal of funds, it is understood the CPI received a number of offers of financial support, but none were sufficient to give the body the financial weight its directors felt it needed to operate in legally hazardous territory.

Treasury Holdings recently sent solicitors' letters to all CPI directors, warning it would seek to have them held personally liable if any defamatory statements were made.

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