“unless it’s because politicians in Northern Ireland want to be able to sue newspapers more readily…”

Some interesting added detail in the News Letter report following up on the story of the Northern Ireland Executive’s failure to consent to the Defamation Bill going through the UK Parliament.  To begin with, it’s claimed that it wasn’t the Executive after all…

Last Wednesday, the News Letter revealed that the Defamation Bill – the first reform of the UK’s libel laws since the 19th Century – had been blocked from extending to Northern Ireland by Stormont’s leaders.

However, the SDLP and Alliance Party have since said that they support the reform. And the SDLP said that the decision was not taken by the five-party Executive but by Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness’ department [OFMDFM].

[The semi-detached polit-bureau strikes again! – Ed]  Apparently…  The News Letter’s Sam McBride has been talking to Lord Lester of Herne Hill – who cites the Irish News restaurant review libel case as an example of the need for reform of the libel laws here.  From the News Letter report

Lord Lester – who initiated the libel law reform three years ago with a private member’s bill which won cross-party support and was then adopted by the Government – said that he could not understand Stormont’s decision.

Speaking to the News Letter from London at the weekend, the leading QC said of the decision: “Obviously, it will not be very wise or sensible.”

However, he added: “Under the devolution settlement, of course, it is for the Northern Ireland authorities, like the Scottish ones, to decide what they want to do.”

Lord Lester said that the situation was in some ways similar to Stormont’s decision to retain the common law offence of ‘blasphemous libel’ after it was abolished in the rest of the UK.

However, he added: “This would be a much more serious anomaly because it would mean that publications on both sides of the Irish Sea would have to comply with three different kinds of law; the modern code which has been worked on for three years on this side of the Irish Sea, the Irish Defamation Act itself in the Republic and the discredited common law in Northern Ireland.

“I can’t think of any good reason to do that, unless it’s because politicians in Northern Ireland want to be able to sue newspapers more readily, which doesn’t seem to me to be a very good reason.”

Indeed.  And, finally, also from the News Letter report

On Wednesday the DUP said in a statement that it was “not a matter of concern” that Northern Ireland would have significantly different libel laws to the rest of the UK, as “Scottish law will also be different”.

But Lord Lester said that was incorrect as there was a well-founded expectation that the Defamation Bill would be extended to Scotland. In October the Scottish Parliament passed a Legislative Consent Motion – the motion which Stormont blocked – to allow a section of the bill to extend to Scotland.

Earlier this week, leading Belfast lawyer Brian Garrett said that there had been “such a poor legislative programme” at Stormont and it seemed that the Defamation Bill “hasn’t been given any thought” by the Executive. He added: “That worries me.”

The News Letter approached OFMDFM for a comment on Lord Lester’s views but none had been received at the time of going to press.

They probably couldn’t agree what line to take on their failure to consent to libel law reform…

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  • aquifer

    So do our MLAs need lawyers to ride shotgun as their reputations are trundled through a City full of skeletons and cupboards?

    The internet is a pretty Dodgy place, so the answer may be yes.

  • Pete Baker


    “So do our MLAs need lawyers to ride shotgun as their reputations are trundled through a City full of skeletons and cupboards?”

    Look again at the detail. It’s, apparently, not all our MLAs…

    “The internet is a pretty Dodgy place, so the answer may be yes.”

    This isn’t about “the internet”. It’s about the libel laws. And their reform, elsewhere.

    Tone down the cynicism/distraction, and focus on the detail.

  • BluesJazz

    I can understand why the DUP oppose it.(very much so).
    SF probably because it’s mainland legislation.
    The UUP (because the DUP have told them to?)

    Again showing that the DUP are ‘unionist’ only in a vague Royal sense. Apart from a consort with parts of western Scotland, they want nothing to do with our benefactors (£12billion and rising).

  • Pete Baker


    Your understanding notwithstanding, the point is that none of the parties concerned have articulated their opposition.

    So you’re guessing.

  • Lionel Hutz

    The biggest question that a case like this gives rise to so far as I am concerned, is about just how do you define the power of OFMDFM. You have this massive department that just seems to be able to intervene at will in anything. I think few people understand the true nature of that dynamic. Its difficult to see when 7 of the 11 other departments would be controlled by that office anyway…

    When we look at the prospect of an opposition, would we not lose any chance of scrutinizing the role of that secretive department?

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Oh Peter Baker, how very disingenious! While “none of the parties concerned have articulated their opposition” their views are well known by anyone who cares to ask any party member. Has anyone checked out Ian Paisley Junior’s views on all of this, expressed during the Westminster debate?

    Brian2013 gives the link on the earlier thread “Embarrassment over Stormont Executive’s shameful failiure to support UK wide free speech and libel reform.” Anyone who has even glanced over David Gordon’s book “The Fall of the House of Paisley” will see right away just where Ian Og is coming from. Blue Jazz is probably writing from the sort of personal knowledge many of us experience of the views and intentions of party members in Norn Iron, rather than “guessing.”

    Lord Lester’s ironic comment; “I can’t think of any good reason …. unless it’s because politicians in Northern Ireland want to be able to sue newspapers more readily, which doesn’t seem to me to be a very good reason.” sums it all up.

  • Rory Carr

    Blues Jazz may be guessing, Pete but, in the light of the concerned parties’ failure to come clean, and of your own reticence in proffering an opinion, what choice do we have if one wishes to participate in the conversation ?

    At least Blues Jazz gives us something on which we can voice an opinion, or guess anew, or even, as SeeanUiNeill suggests, might prompt information from a reader who has heard something through the grapevine.

    Alternatively we could read your post and have a nice little, “Harrumph !” and pass on.

    I don’t think that is what you would want. But then I’m only guessing

  • Framer

    You don’t understand. OFMDFM is the gatekeeper. Only if they ask the other parties do they know about such requests coming out of Westminster.

    In this case they didn’t. However it is entirely possible some civil servant decided it wasn’t worth the effort asking the Ministers if they wanted an extension.

    There ought to be some sort of alert system whereby we are, at least, told when a request comes through from London.

  • It is said that “Truth is always a defense against libel prosecution.” Unfortunately, at least under American libel law, which I suspect is where this “reform” is taking the UK, the opposite is not true. One can prove that something is not true, but if it is said about a public figure, one cannot be convicted of libel unless actual malice can be proved, which is nearly impossible to prove in the case of the press. So, in this instance the DUP and Sinn Fein might actually be correct (after all, a broken clock is correct twice a day).

  • Rory Carr

    I am not quite clear on what you are arguing, tmitch57.

    The opposite of, “Truth is always a defense against libel prosecution.” is surely, “Truth is not* always a defense against libel prosecution,” which, I believe, is the current state of the law in the UK and one that makes London so attractive as a centre for libel tourism.

    *I take it that you do not intend to mean the opposite to be, “Truth is never a defense against libel prosecution.” That would be altogether too Swiftian even for London.

  • @Rory,

    I probably should have spelled it out. I meant that proving that something is a lie is not necessarily a secure defense unless malice can also be proved.

  • Rory Carr

    think that we are almost in conurrence, Mitch.

    As I understand it the current state of libel law in the UK has allowed for libel cases to be successful even where the defendant could demonstrate the truth of what was written and was able to successfully argue that there was no intent of malice in publishing if the plaintiff was able to argue successfully that, notwithstanding the truth of the material, or the author or publisher’s lack of malice, harm had been done to his reputation for no good reason and where there was no compelling defense of the public interest.

    . Related to defamation is” public disclosure of private facts”, which arises where one person reveals information that is not of public concern, and the release of which would offend a reasonable person. “Unlike [with] libel, truth is not a defense for invasion of privacy.”

  • @Rory,

    Under American law proving that what was printed was true always wins a libel case for the defense. This is as it should be. The problem is that when something is printed that is false about a public figure the burden is on those bringing the libel charges to prove that not only was the charge false but that malice was intended. I think that the only defense should be that an honest mistake was made after strenuous efforts were made to establish the truth.

    To give an example, if I publicly wrote that Gerry Adams was a former IRA member and Adams decided to suddenly sue me and could by some miracle prove that he wasn’t an IRA member. I could bring in my defense all the books that claimed that he was including those by Sean O’Callaghan, Kevin Fulton, et al. I should be acquitted for lack of malice and making an honest mistake by trusting all these people. But if I claimed that David Ford was a former IRA member or a former UVF member and he sued me, malice should be inferred because I would have no reasonable grounds for believing the charge that I had made.

  • Rory Carr

    I’m puzzled as to how one might prove that they they are not now (or ever have been) a member of the IRA. With membership of some organisations there would be lists and the absence of one’s name from such a list ought to be a strong indication that one was not a member – but not “proof” thereof (a clerical omission ?). These darned negatives are difficult to pin down.

    Now membership of the Orange Order, that would be a different kettle(drum) of fish. All that would be required to demonstrate that one had never been a member would be show that one had been baptised into the Roman Catholic faith. The IRA, as I understand it, had no such sectarian restrictions.

    Of course, were I, or had I once been, a member of the IRA I should be able to tell you conclusively if that were the case – except of course that I couldn’t really as membership would forbid me from releasing such information.

    Or so I believe.

  • Bluesjazz[12.02]’DUP are ‘unionist only in a vague royal sense’
    That’s true. They talk about norn iron being as British as Finchley but in reality, they want opt-outs from what they don’t like coming from Westminster in an ‘a la carte’ way.
    Loyalty to the crown is a long way down the priority list as they try to protect their core vote. This leads to talking out of both sides of their mouths about respect for the police and law and order while reserving the right of lawbreakers on their side to be treated softly softly. Robinson claims to want fair treatment for loyalists but in reality he wants preferential treatment but is canny enough not to let on.
    Double standards are what he and union ist politicians want returned as in pre 1968 days.

  • BluesJazz


    Unsure about your last line.


    Captain O Neill was despised by Paisley and many Ulster Nationalists. I suspect Cameron has little affection for the DUP who he would see in the same mould as Plaid Cymru. To me, a Unionist means Westminster Rules OK. And if that means more liberal legislation, including extending the 1967 Abortion Act, so be it.

  • Bluewsjazz [7.35] You don’t have a problem with unionist rule for 45 years to 1968? Then you are in total denial.

  • Professor Yattle

    Daniel – have you ever considered the possibility that it’s not the other lot’s fault your life turned out like this?

  • BluesJazz

    I didn’t really experience the time period.
    But surely you can see that a #realunionist leader was trying to do in the late 60’s.
    In Anthony Beevor’s book D-Day, Captain O’Neill was mentioned in dispatches for his valour in leading his Company of Irish Guards.
    His cousin and fellow PM, Major Chichester Clarke was also honoured for his leadership at Anzio.
    Ian Paisley’s war record is strangely missing, though he was of fighting age, maybe he was a conscientious objector?
    The main point is that, as per article, O’Neill was seen as ‘Anglo Irish’, not one of ‘us’. ie English rather than a true prod Ulster evangelical.
    I prefer the former.
    Pity O’Neill never got his wish. Now we have Peter Robinson rubbishing the UK government.
    Plus ca change..

  • BluesJazz.[12.07]
    I didn’t experience the time period either, other than via the TV news which I wasn’t following closely until left school in ’71, living out in the sticks. O’Neill should have been allowed to show he was serious about reforms but Paisley ensured the instability that followed by sabotaging the Nicra marches.

  • BluesJazz,

    Interesting that you say O’Neill was seen as “Anglo-Irish…i.e. English….”
    I remember him doing a long interview (on Panorma?) a year or so after being ousted/resigning. One of the questions asked of him was “What nationality to you consider yourself?” His answer was that he didn’t know. Quite amazing, really.