'Can't we all just say sorry?'

Ronan Pettit, the man who made lewd remarks about Martin Cullen and Monica Leech on RTÉ radio two years ago, tells Frank Connolly why he did it, and how he has no money to assist RTÉ in its defence of a libel action

The man who made lewd and obscene remarks on RTÉ Radio about PR consultant Monica Leech two years ago has apologised unreservedly for his comments. Speaking to Village from his home in Cork, Ronan Pettit, 38, said he accepts that his remarks were "nasty and horrible" and he also apologised for any hurt he caused to her family and to the Minister for Transport, Martin Cullen.

His call to the station and his disparaging comments in December 2004, he said, were not premeditated in any way. He said they arose spontaneously when he listened to a discussion on Joe Duffy's show about Monica Leech's €800 a day salary, which he believed was unjustified given the nature of her work. Monica Leech was hired by Martin Cullen while he was a junior minister with the Office of Public Works from December 2001 and subsequently when he was environment minister from 2002 to 2004.

Ronan Pettit also said he believed that people should be entitled to free comment and that the libel laws in Ireland are overly restrictive.

"What I said about Monica Leech was unacceptable. It was a nasty and horrible thing to say and I was an idiot to use such vulgarity. Unequivocally I am sorry. I am sorry for the distress I caused her, her family and Martin Cullen."

He said that at the time of the call to RTÉ he had taken a couple of glasses of wine and was not in good form as he had just lost his job.

"I was in my flat in Cork and I'd had a couple of glasses of wine. I had just been laid off from my job with Apple Computers when I heard about her €800 a day salary. I thought, 'Well, she is not a brain surgeon'. I wanted to make a point about that. There was this polite discussion on the radio and nobody was really saying what they thought. I didn't think of the implications. The next thing I was all over the newspapers. My family and friends were shocked but I can't complain about it. I brought it on myself."

"I do believe in freedom of speech and that people should be able to say what we like. Compared to America we live in a very libellous society."

Ronan Pettit said he did not believe he could contribute to RTÉ's costs arising from any defamation action by Monica Leech as he does not have any money. He said he was conned by some clever professionals who lured him to his mother's house in west Cork three weeks ago where they served legal papers on him.

"My mother was told that I had won €200 in the lottery and when I travelled down to collect it I was met by two sharp-looking professionals who served third-party papers on me, I think on behalf of Monica Leech."

Ronan Pettit said he lives openly at his address in Cork city and has not been evading anyone despite the impression in recent newspaper reporting of him. Last weekend it was suggested that RTE was having difficulty finding Ronan Pettit. It was also reported that RTÉ has applied to the High Court to have Pettit pay half of the cost of any libel actions taken against it by Monica Leech and Martin Cullen. It was reported that RTE had delayed a hearing of the libel action by Ms Leech due to its failure to track down Pettit.

"I am not in hiding but I am not sure what I can do for RTÉ as they know I have no money."

He said that he has no political affiliations but keeps abreast with current affairs. Born in England, he is second-generation Irish and has lived in Cork since 1986. He is single.

"I know it was embarassing for Monica Leech but if I say sorry to RTÉ and to her can that not sort it out? Can't we all say sorry to each other?" he asked.

Monica Leech has issued legal proceedings against RTÉ because of the contents of Pettit's remarks during Joe Duffy's Liveline programme on Radio 1 in December 2004 at the height of what was called the "Monicagate" scandal.

Monica Leech, who lives in Waterford, was first hired by Mr Cullen, who is also Fianna Fáil TD for Waterford, while he served as junior Minister in the Department of Finance with responsibility for the Office of Public Works (OPW). She was an information co-ordinator for two major OPW projects in Martin Cullen's constituency and had previously been an active political supporter of the junior minister.

When he was promoted to cabinet as Minister for the Environment following the June 2002 general election he appointed Monica Leech on a consultancy basis for which she was paid a daily rate. She worked on the Race Against Waste campaign for the department until the cabinet reshuffle in September 2004 when her services were terminated by the incoming minister, Dick Roche. Her earnings from the consultancy work over two years were in excess of €300,000.

It later emerged that Monica Leech had travelled abroad on several trips with Martin Cullen including on projects which did not appear to relate to the terms of reference of her appointment. A report by the retired chairman of the Revenue Commissioners, Dermot Quigley, published in the Spring of 2005, found that while the circumstances of the appointment of Monica Leech were unusual he found no impropriety on her part or on the part of Martin Cullen.

The Standards in Public Office Commission subsequently investigated the appointment and also found no impropriety but said that it did not have sufficient legislative powers to instigate a deeper inquiry. Its request for wider powers to investigate allegations against the holders of public office was rejected by the Minister for Finance, Brian Cowen, just last month.

Monica Leech is also pursuing five national newspapers who subsequently repeated the lewd remarks of Ronan Pettit.

RTE is expected to argue that it immediately apologised for the comments when they were broadcast on the live Joe Duffy show. In England, broadcasters are protected from any defamation action arising from comments made on live shows by hoax callers. It is expected that RTE will also argue in its defence of any court action that it should have the same protection from such unforeseen defamation.

It is unlikely that Martin Cullen will commence any libel action until after next year's general election. Since the termination of her consultancy Monica Leech has taken a position as chief executive of the Waterford Chamber of Commerce.