UUP: If Executive won’t guard free speech, we will

Parliment Buildings Stormont. Pic Bernie Brown
Parliment Buildings Stormont. Pic Bernie Brown

Stormont’s veto of a free speech law – seemingly by the DUP – could be overturned after UUP leader Mike Nesbitt said that he will bring forward a private bill to reform the libel laws.

As revealed by the News Letter two months ago, someone in Stormont last year decided to block Westminster’s Defamation Bill from extending to Northern Ireland.

But since then the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister has refused to say who took the decision or why it was taken. That secret decision only emerged months later in the House of Commons.

The Bill, which was signed into law by the Queen two weeks ago, provides greater protection for journalism which is in the public interest and specific protections for scientific and academic journals which have faced financially crippling libel suits from large corporations who attempt to silence criticism.

The law will also attempt to end London’s status as the ‘libel capital of the world’, a title some fear will now be inherited by Belfast which will retain the old laws. There are also concerns that some national publications may stop circulating in the Province.

Yesterday the UUP leader said that he is working on a private member’s bill to bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the UK.

Mr Nesbitt said that as a unionist his “default position is parity [with GB] on everything” and that there had to be a compelling argument for Northern Ireland not to follow the rest of the UK. He said that as Finance Minister Sammy Wilson – whose department is responsible for the libel laws – had not made its decision public there had been no consultation with the public.

“It appears to have been a unilateral decision by minister Sammy Wilson; I don’t see any justification for the decision. I think that it is serious enough to address this, which I can do through a private member’s bill.”
Mr Nesbitt said that he would launch a consultation on a bill which would largely copy the Westminster bill with minor amendments to take into account Northern Ireland’s slightly different body of law.

Mr Nesbitt also warned that if Northern Ireland becomes known for libel tourism “we could be flooded with rich, possibly vexatious, complainants; that will have a knock-on effect for the people of Northern Ireland and could clog up the courts”.

Mr Nesbitt said that in 13 years as a journalist at UTV he had been involved in three defamation cases; two of those, he said, were instigated by DUP members.