Willie O'Dea: 'In any developed democracy, O'Dea's current position would hardly be tenable'

On 17 October 2007, Roy Behan was sentenced to a year in prison at Limerick Circuit Criminal Court. His crime was perjury. He had witnessed the knifing to death of his best friend Eric Leamy in 2001. He had given a statement to the gardai identifying Liam Keane as the culprit.

Keane's uncle Kieran visited Behan's house armed with a handgun and an offer of 30 grand. Take your pick. Give evidence and get a bullet. Withdraw the statement and accept the 30 grand. Behan didn't take the money, but at Liam Keane's murder trial in 2003, he retracted his statement. He wanted to live.

Judge Carroll Moran accepted the duress under which the 29-year-old was placed. However, the judge said, "perjury and giving false evidence go to the very core of the criminal justice system and the rule of law". The sentence had to reflect what was at stake.

Behan is represented in the national parliament by Willie O'Dea, but the two men live in different worlds. There is a prima facie case that O'Dea has committed perjury. In his case, though, the instruments of state charged with enforcing the rule of law have stalled. Unless something drastic happens, we must conclude that O'Dea is above the same law that demanded such high standards of civic duty from Roy Behan.

Last March, in the run-up to the local elections, O'Dea gave an interview to the Limerick Chronicle. He made serious allegations about the personal conduct of a Sinn Féin candidate, Maurice Quinlivan.

At the time, Quinlivan was believed to be making electoral inroads in the city's Thomondgate and Ballynanty areas, which theretofore had been an O'Dea stronghold.

Quinlivan sued, applying initially for an injuction to prevent O'Dea repeating the falsehood. O'Dea swore an affidavit, which was referred to in the ruling handed down by judge John Cooke.

"The defendant (O'Dea) candidly admits that he did indeed say to the journalist the quoted words "I suppose I am going a bit too far when I say this but I'd like to ask Mr Quinlivan is the brothel still closed?", but he denies "most categorically and emphatically" that he said to Mr Dwane (the reporter) that the plaintiff was the co-owner of the apartment in question."

The application for an injunction was refused. Quinlivan was elected and persisted with his defamation action. A discovery order was served on the newspaper, which handed over the reporter's recorded interview. Therein, contrary to his sworn evidence, Willie could be heard quite clearly alleging Quinlivan was a co-owner of the offending apartment.

On 21 December, O'Dea issued an apology to Quinlivan in the High Court for making false and defamatory statements against him. He also apologised for having denied making such statements the previous April. He paid the councillor's costs and an undisclosed sum of damages.

Quite clearly, the case opens the possibility of O'Dea having committed a serious crime. As part of the settlement, Quinlivan accepted there was no intention on the part of O'Dea to mislead the High Court, so he won't be making a complaint to gardaí. But Quinlivan is not a law enforcement agent.

No investigation has been initiated by gardaí, despite the reporting of what has happened. The DPP has not signalled that he wants an investigation. When Behan was suspected of perjury, a major inquiry was launched by gardaí and DPP, which led to a prosecution.

There are other differences between the situations in which the two men found themselves. Behan gave false evidence to preserve his life. O'Dea's admitted false evidence was in pursuit of a few grubby votes for his acolytes.

There is a serious public interest in pursuing this case. Lying is common in courts up and down the country. There is little fear of ever being prosecuted. And now, with the minister for defence apparently giving false evidence with impunity, the rule of law in courtrooms is destined to be further undermined.

At a political level, the impunity is even more outrageous. In any developed democracy, O'Dea's current position would hardly be tenable. But O'Dea is popular with the Leinster House-based media. There has been no serious inquiry from that quarter. The opposition has also let the matter pass. The only attempt to raise it was from Fine Gael's Eugene Regan in the Seanad, and he was shouted down.

He tried again last Thursday.

"In the United Kingdom, a former Minister, Jonathan Aitken, and Lord Jeffrey Archer were found guilty of perjury in separate libel actions. Here, a sitting Minister, Deputy Willie O'Dea… who by his own admission has lied on oath…

"Since no explanation is forthcoming, if we are to have any standards which are comparable to that applicable in other jurisdictions, the least the Minister of Defence should do is resign from office," he told the Seanad.

There has been no word on the matter from self-styled tough guy, Justice Minister Dermot Ahern. Last year, he felt compelled to water down civil liberties in order to preserve the rule of law. Yet now he has nothing to say about an incident involving a senior law maker that surely undermines the rule of law.

Perhaps Ahern might address the nation on who he deems should be subject to the laws of the land and who is exempt from prosecution. Brian Cowen might also let us know the base standards he employs in assessing the suitability of his ministers to serve.

In a developed democracy, citizens are all deemed to be equal before the law. Banana Republics are more discerning on such matters.