Ireland’s RTE under fire for apology to Iona Institute

Rory O'Neill's alter ego Panti

Rory O’Neill’s alter ego Panti

Irish state-run television broadcaster RTE has come under heavy criticism after offering a full apology and possible financial compensation to the Iona Institute, a conservative Catholic lobby groups declared “homophobic” by a talk show guest.

The decision appears to have been reached under pressure from Irish Broadcasting Authority board member John Waters, who was also declared homophobic during the same segment. The allegations follow RTE’s decision to remove  the remarks, made by Rory O’Neill who performs as one of Ireland’s most acclaimed drag queens under the name Miss Panti, and extensive popular debate about the treatment of Ireland’s conservative lobby groups in mainstream media.

On RTE’s The Saturday Night Show, O’Neill declared a number of prominent Conservative advocates, specifically Breda O’Brien, John Waters, and “The Iona Institute crowd” homophobic. RTE removed the segment from its online player the following day, citing legal concerns as well as the recent murder of Iona Institute researcher Tom O’Gorman as a matter of “sensitivity”‘ although later admitting O’Gorman was not relevant to the program content. On January 25th, the show’s host Brendan O’Connor formally apologised for the distress caused to John Waters and other columnists. The Iona Institute has thanked RTE for the apology, which it called “an extremely valuable contribution to a calm and reasonable debate” and explained that RTE had also agreed to pay damages to the injured parties. When asked about the claim that damages would be paid over O’Neill’s comments, an RTE television spokesperson declined to comment. Neither side would confirm the identity of the claimants.

RTE’s sudden condemnation of the remarks has been linked to legal action pursued by John Waters, a conservative Catholic commentator and journalist, and board member of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland . The Irish Independent cite anonymous sources confirming that legal representatives of Waters sent a legal letter to the broadcaster seeking the removal of the interview on the popular Saturday Night Show. It has since been restored to the website, though the offending portions of O’Neill’s interview have been edited out. Waters resigned from his position with the Irish Broadcasting Authority on January 23rd, after the letters had been drafted and sent. His decision to legally challenge RTE has been broadly criticized as an abuse of office. As solicitor Simon McGarr explains, this “was not merely a letter from an aggrieved citizen to a broadcaster. It was also a letter from one of that Broadcaster’s regulators seeking to have that broadcaster censor a citizen, who was both contributing to a matter of public debate and engaging in a defence of a minority of which he is a member, bona fide and without malice”. Waters has declined all requests for media comment.

Since his appearance on The Saturday Night Show, O’Neill has confirmed receiving personal legal correspondence from Breda O’Brien, David Quinn, Patricia Casey, and John Murray, all patrons of the Iona Institute. In a statement released on its blog, the Iona Institute defended the measure, explaining: “The problem is that merely believing that marriage is the sexual union of a man and a woman, and that children deserve the love of both a mother and a father whenever possible is automatically deemed to be ‘homophobic’ by those wishing to close down this debate.” This defamation, they claim, is harmful to political discussion.

Any private claims of defamation, explains barrister Brian Barrington, are unlikely to hold up in court, explaining: “Mr O’Neill’s comments arise in a context where the Iona Institute is well known in Ireland for its opposition to affording equal marriage rights to gays and lesbians and also for its opposition to same-sex parenting. It seeks to maintain the current discrimination whereby same-sex couples are prohibited from marrying whereas opposite sex couples are free to do so. In these circumstances, it is clear that Mr O’Neill was entirely entitled to express his honestly held opinion, which was based on facts that were reasonably known to the public.” Criticism of RTE for reacting to such a baseless legal case is well founded. “‘It is astonishing that RTE, a national broadcaster, should apologise for what Mr O’Neill has stated, censor his interview on the internet and award public money to those in the Iona Institute who have sought to prevent a free debate on equal marriage by preventing gay rights campaigners from uttering in future that opposition to same sex marriage is homophobic,” he explains.

Irish media have come under fire for a number of complaints of homophobia in recent weeks, including a discussion on RTE radio program The God Slot that discussed “curing” homosexuality and a Midwest Radio presenter’s decision to read a text on air that suggested children of gay couples could develop Aids. Ireland will legislate on a number of key gay rights issues in the coming years, including full legal recognition of gay adoptive parents, and a constitutional referendum on the legalisation of gay marriage is scheduled for 2015. The imminent debate has many calling for a “homophobia watchdog” to monitor public statements.

Una Mullally, a columnist for the Irish Times, explains: “‘Free speech’ is not a free pass to inflict psychological trauma just because you don’t want lesbians or gay people to get married. Opponents of marriage equality are not the victims in this debate.”

This article was posted on 30 January 2014 at

Ireland: Legal threats from Catholic commentators put drag artist Panti in a twist

Rory O'Neill's alter ego Panti

Rory O’Neill’s alter ego Panti

Is it possible to be opposed to gay rights without being homophobic? Is belief in a “cure” for homosexuality proof of prejudice against gay people?

On the other hand, is it libelous to call a Catholic commentator “homophobic”?

Ireland has been dealing with these questions for the past week.

On Saturday, Rory O’Neill, a well-known drag artist who has performed for many years under the name Panti, appeared on RTE’s The Saturday Night Show.

O’Neill made some interesting points at the progress gay people have made in Ireland, suggesting that because of the country’s small population, societal change can happen much more rapidly. He told chat show host Brendan O’Connor:

So much has changed. And I think em a small country like Ireland sometimes we get a bad rap because people think “oh small conservative country blah blah blah”. But actually I think a small country like Ireland changes much faster than a big country because absolutely…I’m..think about it every single person in this audience has a cousin or a neighbour or the guy that you work with who is a flaming queen. I mean you all know one. And it’s very hard to hold prejudices against people when you actually know those people. And Ireland because it’s such small communities grouped together, everybody knows the local gay and you know maybe twenty years ago it was okay to be really mean about him but nowadays it’s just not okay to be really mean about him. The only place that you see it’s okay to be really horrible and mean about gays is you know on the internet in the comments and you know people who make a living writing opinion pieces for newspapers.”

When pressed on whether he meant anyone specific, O’Neill named Irish Times columnists John Waters and Breda O’Brien, and also the Iona Institute, a conservative Catholic think tank whose founder, David Quinn, makes regular appearances in print and broadcast media (though O’Neill did not mention Quinn in person).

O’Neill went on to suggest that while these people may not actually describe themselves, or see themselves, as homophobic, their position on gay marriage, for example, was essentially homophobic:

What it boils down to is if you’re going to argue that gay people need to be treated in any way differently than everybody else or should be in anyway less, or their relationships should be in anyway less then I’m sorry, yes you are a homophobe and the good thing to do is to sit, step back, recognise that you have some homophobic tendencies and work on that.”

Robust, perhaps, but not an unheard of position, and one that the likes of Quinn, O’Brien and Waters could have responded to in their respective columns.

That’s not quite what has happened.

On Saturday night, the same night O’Neill was on TV denouncing the Iona Institute, a researcher for the organisation, Tom O’Gorman, was brutally killed in his home in Dublin, apparently after an argument over a chess game.

On Wednesday, news site reported that the national broadcaster had removed the edition of The Saturday Night Show from its RTE player website, edited out references to the various columnists and the Iona Institute, and uploaded the show again. RTE confirmed to the Journal that:

Last weekend’s The Saturday Night Show was removed from the Player due to potential legal issues and for reasons of sensitivity following the death of Tom O’Gorman as would be standard practice in such situations.”

The sensitivity question is an interesting one: While anyone would feel sympathy towards the members of the Iona Institute following the loss of their colleague, the slain O’Gorman himself was not named by O’Neill, and the fact of a brutal murder does not put the Institute’s views beyond debate.

So what were the “legal issues”? Could they be related to the murder investigation? Hard to see how.

Yesterday,, another news site, published a transcript of the deleted scenes, along with correspondence in which the national broadcaster warned them “You are hereby put on notice that the publication and continued publication of this interview and any transcripts thereof may be defamatory.”

“Concerns” had apparently been raised about the interview, though RTE did not say by whom.

Meanwhile, O’Neill tweeted that he had started receiving legal letters – again, he did not say from whom, except that some were expected and some were not.


The Irish Independent reported, however, that Waters lawyers had been in touch with RTE, and that O’Brien was seeking advice. The Iona Institute refused to comment.*

Just as that case moved into another stage, The God Slot, RTE radio’s flagship religion programme managed to start a whole new row over how Ireland talks about gay people. The show’s twitter account, trailing the contents of the Friday evening episode, tweeted: “Can gays be cured of being gay? Try The God Slot Fri 17/01”.

The crass wording led to an avalanche of criticism, which the poor soul running the account did not handle very well at all. In fact, they ended up saying critics who objected to the implication that gay people could be “cured” were, in fact, engaging in “fascism masquerading as liberalism” Both tweets have since been deleted, and RTE has attempted to explain that the item on the show is actually dedicated to refuting claims for “gay cures”. But the defensiveness with which the show initially handled criticism suggests that the RTE employee handling the account did not understand what people would perceive as wrong with the post.

The irony is that LGBT rights have made enormous progress in Ireland since homosexuality was decriminalised in 1993. People such as Panti were at the forefront of making gay people visible back then. These days, even sports stars such as hurler Donal Og Cusack can talk about their sexuality and get widespread support. Civil partnership is available for gay people, and there is a strong push for gay marriage.

There remains, though, a rump of conservative Catholicism which is moving from a point of authority to a point where it sees itself as victimised by a progressive, metropolitan elite. Hence the reported legal action against Panti. If the Catholic right was more confident in its arguments, it wouldn’t attempt to censor the other side. As commentator Gavan Titley put it: “Top tip: when you start losing the culture war you long hankered after, sue.”

*UPDATE: Panti has posted the following on Facebook regarding legal letters: “There has been a lot of speculation so for the sake of clarity: I have not received any correspondence, legal or otherwise, from John Waters. I have received four solicitors letters on behalf of Breda O’Brien, David Quinn, Patricia Casey, and John Murray, all of whom are associated with the Iona Institute. If you are going to comment, please be careful and measured!”

HT Niamh Puirseil on Twitter