A STORMONT decision to block the extension to Northern Ireland of a Westminster law intended to strengthen protection of free speech was not taken by the Executive, the SDLP last night claimed.
Instead, the party said it was “disappointing” that a decision not to allow the Defamation Bill to cover Northern Ireland appears to have been taken by Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness’s department.
And last night the DUP said that it was “not a matter of concern” that Northern Ireland would have significantly different libel laws to the rest of the UK.
Yesterday the News Letter revealed that last summer – though it was not announced at the time – Stormont turned down the chance to be included in the first reform of the UK’s libel laws since the 19th century.
That will leave Northern Ireland as the only part of the UK without strengthened defences against vexatious libel actions which currently face journalists, authors, academics and members of the public who post comments on the internet.
The potential for two libel regimes across the UK could have significant implications for national publications that are distributed in Northern Ireland.
As reported yesterday, Stormont’s Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP) – which has responsibility for libel law – said it “was unable to secure an Executive decision within the required timescale”. However, that Stormont decision was taken last June, yet the Scottish Parliament made its decision – to allow the Defamation Bill to extend to Scotland – some four months later.
Yesterday the News Letter asked all five parties which make up the Stormont Executive for their position on the issue. Sinn Fein and the UUP had not responded at the time of going to press.
The DUP said in a statement: “This is a devolved matter and something which the Executive can amend if needed in due course. It is not a matter of concern that Northern Ireland libel law will differ from England. Scottish law will also be different.”
In a statement, the SDLP said: “The SDLP has no difficulty with extending reforms relating to defamation to Northern Ireland. We said so when the matter arose at the time (May 2012) but it seems that somewhere between DFP and the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister there was a decision not to proceed with the extension. That is for them to explain.
“It is however, disappointing that these decisions are taken without adequate explanation and without keeping either the Executive or the Assembly properly informed.”
Alliance said in a statement: “Alliance has no objection to Northern Ireland being part of wider UK legislation.
“We see merit in a consistency of approach throughout these islands, not least because the media operates across the boundaries of different regions within the UK. Moreover, we believe there is merit in a balanced approach to our defamation law that recognises how the valid public interest can be represented by the media.”
Northern Ireland Conservatives’ spokesman Julian Robertson said the situation was “ridiculous” and added: “This was an opportunity to get something done, quickly and easily, beyond the usual diet of carve-up politics we’re accustomed to at Stormont.
“Yet now we’re facing the prospect of Northern Ireland lagging behind the rest of the UK when it comes to defamation law and missing the chance to enact a good piece of legislation.”