Cabinet deny split over privacy bill

THE Government last night moved to deny that a delay in agreeing privacy legislation was due to a new Cabinet split on the issue.

Ministers had been expected to yesterday green light measures to reform defamation laws if they formed part of a package including controversial laws shielding the private lives of individuals.

However, the decision has now been put back three weeks.

The Justice Department insisted the move was due to technical procedures and nothing to do with pressure from Fianna Fáil ministers to toughen-up protection from press scrutiny for politicians and other household names.

Justice Minister Michael McDowell was last week told by as many as five Fianna Fáil Cabinet colleagues they would only support his Defamation Bill if it came in tandem with strict protection against the reporting of the private lives of individuals.

Mr McDowell promised to reform defamation legislation when he was given the justice portfolio in 2002.

The proposed bill includes stronger guarantees of press freedom but also provides for the setting up of a press council, which will be set up - but not operated - on a statutory basis.

However, when he first presented the bill to the Cabinet last summer, several ministers including Martin Cullen, Noel Dempsey and Brian Cowen opposed it on the grounds that its privacy provisions were not sufficiently strong.

At last week’s Cabinet meeting, Mr McDowell outlined details of proposed privacy legislation to be published at a later date.

It was based on a landmark European Court of Human Rights case that upheld the rights of Princess Caroline of Monaco to privacy - even though she had been photographed in a public cafe.

However, a number of Fianna Fáil ministers insisted that the privacy legislation would be published simultaneously with the Defamation Bill.

Mr McDowell is believed to have presented reworked proposals for the legislation to the Cabinet at yesterday’s meeting.

“There was general agreement at the meeting to proceed with the defamation bill and privacy report.

“The Government agreed to finalise the matter in three weeks once some drafting issues have been sorted out,” a spokesperson for Mr McDowell said.

Transport Minister Mr Cullen has been widely perceived as the strongest advocate of privacy legislation, however, it is believed that two other Cabinet colleagues, Mr Cowen and Mr Dempsey, argued more forcefully for the privacy legislation to be included.

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