Blocking libel reform threatens our universities, as well as our journalists


I have to acknowledge that I remain puzzled as to why the Assembly has blocked libel reform at this point and I should like to explain why I am still puzzled.

If one looks at the unionist political class, a defining feature of the rhetoric of unionism was the belief in something called equality of citizenship. The current First Minister has achieved many things in his career. He is however particularly well known for one phrase in the aftermath of the Anglo-Irish agreement of 1985, when he complained that he regarded Northern Ireland as having been pushed on to the window ledge of the union. In this case, it looks as if he himself is scrabbling out of the main room of the house to get himself on to the window ledge of the Union.

Equality of citizenship has always been at some level an important part of the historic argument for unionism. That does not mean that in all cases Northern Ireland must apply exactly the law as it is here, and there may be significant reasons for difference. The important point is that there should be—as there has been in other recent cases, to be fair — an open public debate as to why that might be so.

What is specific about this case is that there has been virtually no public debate, just a negative fiat and a refusal of legislative consent [to extend the Defamation Act to Northern Ireland] with no real explanation. Of course, I am delighted to see that politicians in the Assembly are trying to ensure a public debate.

I now refer to the republican and nationalist tradition in the Assembly, which must have a voice in this respect. That tradition has always chosen to identify itself with human rights. It is particularly keen on the campaign for a Northern Ireland Bill of Human Rights. I would say that such a campaign is compromised by the stand that has apparently been taken. Let me explain why.

The noble Lord, Lord Lester, has already referred to the European convention and its commitment to freedom of expression. The Belfast Agreement provides that a key safeguard is the European convention.

So the significance of the European convention for the working of the Belfast Agreement is flagged up at the heart of the agreement itself. It seems to me that a political tradition which has identified itself so much, as, for understandable reasons, the republican and nationalist tradition has, with the European convention, and which has identified itself with the campaign for a Northern Ireland Bill of Human Rights, has at this point been remarkably silent on a concrete application which is of real meaning to the citizens of Northern Ireland.

I turn to one other key aspect of the current decision as it affects universities.

The truth is that British provincial, what we might call old-style redbrick universities, are finding it more and more difficult in a competitive world to retain their remarkably strong position in league tables.

We do not seem at this point to have a problem with keeping Oxford and Cambridge — or Imperial — right up at the top, but there is considerable evidence that universities such as Manchester, Glasgow and Sheffield are struggling in an intensely competitive world to maintain their relatively high positions in those league tables. Queen’s University Belfast is certainly not exempt from that difficult struggle.

To me, it sends out a very negative signal for academics who might be considering working at Queen’s University Belfast to discover that they would be working in the only region of the United Kingdom where, at this point, the amount of academic freedom is a matter of indifference.

One of the most important things in the new defamation legislation is the increased defence of academic freedom, particularly to allow academics to express controversial and difficult opinions in peer-reviewed journals in both the sciences and humanities in a way in which the chill factor previously undoubtedly militated against. It seems to me symbolically that if you want to maintain a vital university culture, this is a mistake for the Assembly.

The sector is of considerable importance to the economy of Northern Ireland and what has been done here has implications for the economy of Northern Ireland.

If the universities of Northern Ireland can maintain a strong position in the international league tables, that must be good for the economy. If they sag, and if there is a growing sense that they are not the best places to work and certainly not the most free, and that the local political class does not really care about that, then that is a negative signal.

There is a great phrase from Brian Lenihan, a former Foreign Minister of the Irish Republic, about the value of mature recollection. I hope that in this case mature reflection will come to the rescue of the Northern Ireland Assembly and that there will be some reconsideration.

This is an edited version of the speech Lord Bew gave to the House of Lords last week