Finance Minister Sammy Wilson’s decision to veto a law to strengthen protections on free speech has been vigorously defended by the DUP, following fresh criticism.
Last year, Mr Wilson apparently blocked the Defamation Bill – a reform of the UK’s archaic libel laws – from extending to Northern Ireland, a decision which was not announced and was revealed by the News Letter in March.
Last month the UUP leader, Mike Nesbitt, said that he would introduce a Private Member’s Bill at Stormont to rectify the anomaly, amid fears that Belfast could take over from London as the libel capital of the world and some national publications may even stop circulating here.
Writing in The Times of London yesterday, one of the paper’s leading columnists, Matthew Parris, said that the DUP move was “disturbing”.
The former Tory MP said that Northern Ireland would lose out on the “horribly overdue legislation” and that the move had been blocked because libel laws fall into the DUP’s “fiefdom” at Stormont. Highlighting that lawyers would benefit from the situation, he questioned whether the DUP would suggest repealing copyright reforms or the ban on bear-baiting, making Belfast the place where “anything goes”.
Responding to Mr Parris’s comments, North Down DUP MLA Peter Weir said it was “reasonable” to “consider” reviewing defamation law in the Province.
But Mr Weir, a non-practicing barrister, said that any such review should “take into account our own local circumstances with any subsequent legislation tailored to our particular circumstances”.
And the DUP chief whip hit back at criticism: “There is little or no basis in fact for the scare stories that have been peddled in the press in relation to current practice in Northern Ireland.
“Much of the commentary in the press has been self-serving and a way to avoid paying damages when they publish material which is untrue.”
But, speaking on BBC Radio Ulster yesterday, Mike Harris from the Index on Censorship said that the biggest losers would be “the person in the street” because they could be sued for libel over what they write on the internet, whether on Facebook, Twitter or blogs.