£80k awarded against Sinn Fein for malicious libel

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BUSINESSMAN Declan Gormley has been awarded £80,000 by a jury — and will not have to pay any costs towards a three-week trial — after Sinn Fein was found guilty of maliciously libelling him in two press releases.

On Friday a jury unanimously found that two Sinn Fein press releases defamed the former Northern Ireland Water director Declan Gormley and, after dismissing defences pleaded by Sinn Fein, a judge found the party guilty of libel.

Today the jury took just half an hour to decide that Mr Gormley should receive £80,000 from Northern Ireland’s second largest political party to vindicate his name and make up for the damage done by Sinn Fein’s actions — a figure comparable to that for losing the sight of one eye.

Speaking after the verdict, Mr Gormley repeated that the case had “never been about the money” but about “vindicating my reputation and good name”.

The former Northern Ireland Water non-executive director said: “I’m absolutely delighted, but I think it’s more important to point out that this completes the utter vindication of my position.

“What happened to me was wrong, a jury of ordinary men and women have decided it was wrong and have awarded accordingly.”

This morning lawyers for each side made short arguments to the jury about the level of damages which would be appropriate. The judge then addressed the jury, stressing several times to “keep your feet on the ground”.
In helping to guide the jury, Mr Justice Gillen gave examples of what is awarded in personal injury cases, pointing out to the jury that someone who loses the sight in one eye or a hand can typically expect to receive between £60,000 and £95,000. However, he stressed that the decision on damages was entirely for the jury and they could disregard his advice.

At one point during Mr Justice Gillen’s address to the jury, the case had to be temporarily halted after a juror was physically sick in the jury box.

Sinn Fein’s barrister, Martin McCann, argued that costs should be lower because the two press releases were never actually printed by any of the roughly 200 news outlets to which they were sent.

Mr Gormley had been represented throughout the case by Nicolas Hanna QC but today was represented in court by barrister David Dunlop. He argued that there were aggravating factors to be taken into account in deciding damages, including the way in which Sinn Fein had conducted the trial.

He said that there had been “a bull-headed, unreasonable and unjustified persistence in maintaining the party line” throughout the case.

At the conclusion of today’s hearing, the judge awarded full costs of the three-week trial against Sinn Fein.

On Saturday the News Letter reported what is understood to be a conservative estimate of the case’s costs being more than £200,000, even before the jury today rules on the level of damages to be paid to Mr Gormley.

Accounts lodged with the Electoral Commission earlier this year show that Sinn Fein brought in £1.2 million last year, making it the Province’s wealthiest party.

However, the accounts show that almost all of that money was spent meaning that the party might have to dig deep into reserves to finance this case.

The trial was originally listed for five days. Sinn Fein’s barrister spent four days cross-examining Mr Gormley and a further two days summing up his case to the jury.

The very fact that there was a jury also contributed to the length of the trial and therefore the costs because much of the evidence was simplified for the jurors and there were a host of stoppages by counsel where they raised legal objections to particular lines of questioning during which the jury had to be sent out.

The trial judge, Mr Justice Gillen, had suggested to both parties at a pre-trial hearing that they may wish to consider the wisdom of having a jury.

Although he made clear that it was the defendants’ right to request a jury, he reminded Sinn Fein’s legal team of the issues which a jury trial threw up — not least that there was a split function between judge and jury.

In the end that divide in responsibilities did not appear to be an issue as the jury’s finding was so overwhelmingly in Mr Gormley’s favour that the judge’s ruling on the defence was straightforward.

Speaking to the News Letter at the weekend, Mr Gormley said he was “delighted and relieved it has finally concluded and I am totally vindicated by the outcome”.

Mr Gormley, who has rigorously denied any blame for procurement failings at NI Water since being sacked by the then Regional Development Minister Conor Murphy in 2010, said that he had expected the trial to last less than a week.

The Claudy businessman sat in the public gallery, often alone, for the entire trial.

Mr Gormley, who would have himself faced an enormous financial burden had he lost, said: “It’s a difficult experience to have to sit through something as protracted as that, knowing the significance of the outcome.”

When asked if he’d been contacted by Sinn Fein, Mr Gormley said: “No. I’m not expecting anything at this stage from Sinn Fein.

“I think it’s very unfortunate that this has had to go to this stage because I’ve always maintained this could have been settled a long time ago at minimal cost for everybody.

“It’s not for me to try to second-guess why Sinn Fein felt they needed to defend what I believe was indefensible.

“It’s obviously been something that’s occupied a lot of my time. It’s something that I felt very strongly about and very determined to try to resolve and it’s something I wish hadn’t happened because I think it’s taken up two years, nine months of my life and it’s been, of course, at times stressful for both me and my family.”

He added: “It is a long, drawn-out process, it’s difficult and it’s expensive but I would hope that perhaps the real lesson out of this would be that all the political parties will bear in mind their real duty of care to individual citizens and remember that individuals need to be protected as well as larger corporate organisations.”

The jury will return this morning to decide on the level of damages to be paid to Mr Gormley.

While the libel action was taken against Sinn Fein, its MLA Cathal Boylan and former MLA Willie Clarke, a second legal case is being pursued by Mr Gormley in which Mr Murphy is named as a defendant.

That more complex case also involves the Department of Regional Development and its former permanent secretary, Paul Priestly, and alleges misconduct in public office, something which they deny.

Mr Murphy’s successor as minister, the UUP’s Danny Kennedy, has repeatedly declined to comment on that case — which his department is defending with public money — because it is ongoing.