The Minister for Communications, Pat Rabbitte, has issued a statement on the controversy between RTÉ and the Iona Institute this afternoon, warning the national broadcaster that legal claims cannot be allowed to affect its public service obligations.
In his statement, the Minster said the term 'homophobe' – at the centre of the controversy – was not one he would use himself to label "those who disagree with me on issues of gay equality in general or gay marriage in particular."
"It is too loaded a term to be used to categorise those who hold contrary views on what is a matter for legitimate public debate," he said.
However, he also said that those who act as commentators should not to be too quick to avail of defamation law.
"I would also hope that people and institutions that hold themselves out as commentators on, or contributors to, public debate fully appreciate ... that debate can be robust, heated, personal and sometimes even hostile," he warned.
"If you enter the arena, you cannot expect that the Queensbury Rules [traditional gentlemen's boxing rules] will always apply.
"It would be a matter of serious concern if recourse to our defamation laws was to have a chilling effect on the conduct of public debate on this issue, in the lead-in to the forthcoming referendum on gay marriage," he said.
Minister Rabbitte also emphasised that he had no intention in interfering with RTÉ's internal management of legal claims against the company. However, he stressed that such claims could not be allowed to interfere with its public service remit.
"I do expect that RTÉ remains fully committed to its chief obligation as a public service broadcaster – to ensure the full and free exchange of information and opinion on all matters of legitimate public interest,” he said.