SF MLA faces big bill after admitting libelling UUP MP

Sinn Fein's Phil Flanagan leaving the High Court in Belfast after today's hearing. ' 'Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye

Sinn Fein's Phil Flanagan leaving the High Court in Belfast after today's hearing. ' 'Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye

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A Sinn Fein MLA has admitted that he seriously libelled an Ulster Unionist MP by wrongly claiming that he had shot people - and now the Sinn Fein man potentially faces an enormous legal bill.

Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLA Phil Flanagan made the comments on Twitter on May 1, 2014 in relation to former Ulster Unionist leader Tom Elliott.

The tweet only stayed up for one hour before the MLA deleted it and it was seen by just 167 people – but Mr Flanagan now faces a huge bill for his comment.

Today the matter was heard at the High Court in Belfast.

The defamatory tweet, which was read out in court this morning, said: “Tom Elliott speaks to Stephen Nolan about the past. I wonder if he will reveal how many people he harassed or shot as a member of the UDR.”

Mr Elliott, who is now the MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, immediately got his solicitor to write to Mr Flanagan and then began legal proceedings.

Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 8th January 2016  UUP MP Tom Elliott's case against Sinn Fein's Phil Flanagan settled at the High Court in Belfast with damages to be decided.   Tom Elliott(right) leaves the court.    Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye

Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 8th January 2016 UUP MP Tom Elliott's case against Sinn Fein's Phil Flanagan settled at the High Court in Belfast with damages to be decided. Tom Elliott(right) leaves the court. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye

After a delay in which Mr Flanagan made no substantive response, his lawyers eventually replied to accept that his tweet had been defamatory.

They admitted that the allegation had been “wholly without foundation” and “untrue”. He has agreed to pay compensation, which will be set by the judge.

Both Mr Elliott and Mr Flanagan were in court this morning and Mr Elliott gave evidence that he believed the tweet endangered his life by making him more of a target for dissident republicans.

It also emerged in court that Mr Flanagan - who was deselected by Sinn Fein last month and so will end his term as an MLA in May - had hoped to avail of taxpayer-funded insurance which indemnifies MLAs from actions arising from defamatory comments which they make.

Phil Flanagan

Phil Flanagan

However, the insurer has refused - for reasons which were not made clear in court - to pay for his case.

Mr Flanagan is now suing the insurer in a separate case which has yet to come to court.

As things stand, he will have to pay compensation to Mr Elliott as well as the legal costs for both sides of the action.

This afternoon the case resumed at the High Court, with Mr Flanagan’s barrister confirming that he would not be calling his client to offer any evidence in his defence.

Tom Elliott.

Tom Elliott.

After consulting with his client, the barrister confirmed that Mr Flanagan would tweet his apology to Mr Elliott by midnight tonight.

The judge, Mr Justice Stephens, reserved judgement on the issue of costs.

A previous libel by Sinn Fein, where the party defamed former Northern Ireland Water director Declan Gormley by untrue allegations about his financial conduct, saw the party having to pay £80,000 in compensation, as well as a far bigger legal bill.

However, unlike that case which went to trial with Sinn Fein denying that its statements had been defamatory, in this case Mr Flanagan accepted that what he had done was wrong, meaning that the judge is likely to give him a discount.

Today’s hearing was told that typically such discounts can be in the range of 33 to 50 per cent of what would ordinarily have been awarded against him.

Mr Flanagan’s barrister, Desmond Fahy, argued that because of his client’s efforts to make amends the judge should heavily discount the level of damages which he decides to award.

But Mr Elliott’s barrister, David Dunlop, argued that it took until today’s hearing to secure a public apology.

“The defendant had every opportunity from May 1, 2014 until January 8, 2016 to tweet that what he said was untrue and wholly without foundation and to apologise to the plaintiff, but he hasn’t done so and he has called no evidence to explain why he hasn’t done so,” Mr Dunlop argued.

Claiming the discount on compensation should be limited, he added: “Accusing a person who has a responsible position as an elected representative and who has previously served as a soldier in the Ministry of Defence of harassing and shooting people must be towards the top end of the scale.”

Judgment was reserved on the level of damages.

Pledging to give his verdict as soon as possible, the judge said: “The case has raised points I have to reflect on and consider.”

Speaking outside the court, Mr Elliott said: “I have been totally vindicated and Phil Flanagan has admitted that the comments he made were totally untrue.

“I am very disappointed that it has taken so long to get to this stage. This could have been resolved 19 months ago, but unfortunately I was forced to go down this route. Despite that, I am delighted with the result.”