Martin the Snake, hides in the Dail, as the FF Backbenchers sit on the Ditch, like Cowardly Sheep.

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Chay Bowes blasts Martin’s ‘utterly baseless conspiracy theories’ of Russian involvement in The Ditch website

• 3h ago

Chay Bowes, one of the backers of news website the Ditch, has hit out at “utterly baseless conspiracy theories” around questions of Russian involvement in the site.

The comments follow suggestions made by Tánaiste Micheál Martin, after the website published allegations about Fianna Fáil Minister of State Niall Collins. When asked why Mr Collins did not have to face Dáil questions on the sale of local authority land to his wife Dr Eimear O’Connor, the Fianna Fáil leader launched an unprecedented attack on the website that published details of the land deal at the centre of the controversy.

Mr Martin said he did not believe the website was an independent media organisation, and raised questions about the involvement of businessman Chay Bowes, who he noted worked for Russia Today.

This evening, Mr Bowes in a statement said the allegations were “an admission of their [government’s] panicked desperation”.

“It’s an age old tactic, first deny, then attempt to discredit the source, and if all else fails accept it begrudgingly and do the minimum to prevent it happening again (as Varadkar did re doc leak),” Mr Bowes said.

“Now grasping at utterly baseless conspiracy theories rather than acknowledging the deep seated petty corruption in their parties.”

Bowes then hit out at Mr Martin’s “petty” attack on the Ditch “from behind the shield of Dáil privilege”.

“This is a statement from the top to all citizens. Dissent and you will pay, the facts about what you present are irrelevant as we will target you, your politics and your insolence in a forum where you cannot respond or hold those making these false allegations to account,” he said.

“I will sit opposite either man, without notes in an open debate on any and all issues raised in his deflection tantrum in our National Parliament. Anywhere, any time.”

The Russian Embassy to Ireland on Friday said there is no connection between their country and the Ditch website.

In response to queries, the Russian Embassy in Ireland said: “There is no ‘Russian connection’ to the Ditch website, fullstop.”

“We believe that Tanaiste’s allusion to the Russian involvement in the political debate in Ireland is unfortunate and inappropriate insinuation with no basis in truth,” a spokesperson added.

The Tánaiste questioned the involvement of Web Summit founder Paddy Cosgrave, who is an outspoken critic of the Coalition and provides funding to the Ditch.

Mr Martin went on to raise concerns about the social media campaign that resulted from The Ditch’s story about Mr Collins saying: “There was the trending, the build-up, the hashtags, the algorithms and the paid ads”.

“There was the berating of media for daring not to discuss it or cover it and extraordinary full-frontal attacks on the national broadcaster, other channels and media for not following the trending operation,” he added.

A Government source said Mr Martin’s comments were based on social media posts and publicly available information rather than any official briefings.

The Tánaiste’s spokesperson would not answer questions on whether he has taken any action on his claims about social media manipulation and political interference.

Mr Martin, and the other Government leaders, have said Mr Collins should not have attended a Limerick County Council local area committee where councillors discussed selling land which his wife had weeks earlier inquired about buying.

Dr O’Connor ultimately bought the land but Mr Collins was no longer on the council when the sale was agreed. She also paid €38,000 above the first offer on the site which was advertised publicly.

Mr Collins also conceded he should not have been at the meeting where the sale of he site was first discussed in January 2007. But the long serving Fianna Fáil TD insisted he broke no law by sitting in on the meeting.

The Local Government Act 2001 says council members should disclose any conflicts during meeting and recuse themselves.

Following his Dáil comments on Thursday, the Tánaiste today accused People Before Profit TD Paul Murphy of ‘weaponising’ the Standards in Public Office Commission (Sipo) for “political purposes” by making a complaint about Mr Collins to the ethics watchdog.

Mr Murphy this afternoon sent a complaint to Sipo, requesting an investigation and claiming that Mr Collins breached the Code of Conduct for Councillors and of the Local Government Act.

When asked by if he would make a Garda complaint, Mr Murphy said: “For now, I am focused on the Sipo complaint. I wouldn’t rule it out in the future,” he said.

Speaking in Cork, Micheál Martin said Minister Collins’ statement was “comprehensive” and hit out the PBP TD.

“I think Paul Murphy at this stage is weaponising Sipo for political reasons. He’s not the first to do it and unfortunately, I think there’s a trend developing and a pattern developing where Sipo is now being weaponised for political purposes,” the Tánaiste said.

Mr Martin said he has been “reflecting” on the issue.

“The reason I called it all out yesterday in the Dáil, [is] because I’ve been meaning for quite some time and I’ve been reflecting on this. I think, beyond The Ditch and many of the cheerleaders and those who back it, look how it operates, the attempt to get the story trending.

“It’s leaning into a toxic atmosphere online and in politics in this country.

“I believe in parliamentary democracy and I think many people don’t believe in parliamentary democracy and I think there’s a challenge and a battle ahead in politics.

“I’m not going to stand back and allow a particular form of politics develop or political debate develop and I’ll call out what I believe in my opinion needs calling out.”

He said there hasn’t been “respectful debate” online “for quite some time”.

In his complaint to Sipo, Mr Murphy said that the obligation to investigate a councillor would usually fall under the remit of a council’s ethics registrar, however Limerick County Council no longer exists.

“It is clear that Niall Collins did not deal with this matter in a transparent fashion,” Mr Murphy’s complaint to Sipo reads.

“He failed to inform the Bruff Electoral Area Committee of his wife’s expression of interest in buying this land. He failed to make disclosure of this fact. This undermines public trust and confidence in local government.”

In response to the Tánaiste’s comments about him “weaponising” Sipo, Mr Murphy asked where do the heads of Government believe complaints about ministers’ behaviour should go.

“The Taoiseach says we can’t have questions and answers in the Dáil with a minister because that would be a kangaroo court. The Tánaiste says a complaint to Sipo is weaponising Sipo. So where exactly do they want complaints about their ministers’ unethical behaviour to go? Or would they just prefer if nobody reported on it or mentioned it?”

The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) today expressed concern at what it said was the Tánaiste’s use of Dáil privilege “to attack journalists working for the Ditch website this week”.

Speaking from the union’s delegate meeting in London, Irish NUJ secretary Séamus Dooley described Mr Martin’s comments as “an unwelcome and unedifying departure”.

“I was extremely disappointed to see Dáil privilege used by the Tánaiste to attack a news website in this way. It is an unwelcome and unedifying departure from normal parliamentary procedure,” Mr Dooley said.

“It is inevitable that there will be profound disagreements between those who exercise power and those who seek to hold them to account.

“Journalists who criticise or challenge public figures can expect criticism. Media organisations, across all platforms, are not above scrutiny and are capable of responding robustly to criticism.”

However, he said: “It is not acceptable for politicians to make criticism under Dáil privilege against named individuals.

The media operates within the constraints of extremely restrictive defamation laws.

“Politicians who wish to challenge the accuracy, efficacy or bona fides of any journalist or media organisation should do so within the same constraints and without the protection of Oireachtas privilege”.

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