Ex-SF MLA facing likely bankruptcy after losing libel legal bid

A former Sinn Finn MLA has lost his legal battle over being denied insurance cover for a near £50,000 libel award made against him.

Wednesday, 1st June 2016, 11:34 am
Updated Wednesday, 1st June 2016, 3:03 pm
Phil Flanagan (Sinn Fein) who was eliminated in the Fermanagh and South Tyrone Election. picture by John McVitty, Enniskillen, Co.Fermanagh, N.Ireland-07771987378

Phil Flanagan sued the firm that refused to indemnify him after he sent a tweet falsely implying Ulster Unionist MP Tom Elliott had harassed and shot people.

But a High Court judge ruled that AIG was entitled to withhold cover because Mr Flanagan knew the social media comments about his political rival were so obviously defamatory.

He also ordered the former Sinn Fein representative for Fermanagh and South Tyrone to pay the legal costs of his failed action.

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Mr Flanagan, who does not own property, now faces likely bankruptcy over the scale of his legal costs.

Earlier this year Mr Flanagan was told he must pay £48,750 compensation to Mr Elliott for making unfounded allegations about the ex-UUP leader’s conduct during his previous career as an Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) soldier.

The contents of his tweet were held to be baseless and grossly defamatory.

Mr Elliott, the MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, issued proceedings over the posting on social media back in May 2014.

At the time he had just been interviewed on BBC Radio Ulster’s Nolan Show.

Mr Flanagan then responded to his appearance by tweeting: “Tom Elliottt talks 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.”

The posting was seen by 167 of the Sinn Fein MLA’s followers, six of whom re-tweeted the comments before they were taken down within an hour.

Legal action culminated in the acceptance of an offer to make amends. That involved Mr Flanagan recognising the defamatory and baseless allegations, formally apologising and agreeing to pay compensation and costs.

He accepted his tweet was untrue, wholly without foundation and apologised for all offence caused.

Mr Justice Stephens had put a stay on the payout until Mr Flanagan resolved his case against insurers used by Assembly members over a refusal to indemnify him.

The court heard that the policy provided for libel and slander claims, capped at £1 million annually, excludes any cases where MLAs know their comments are defamatory.

In evidence Mr Flanagan revealed he sent his tweet from Stormont’s car park after listening to the radio show on his journey to Parliament Buildings.

He said his intention was to ask questions about the role of the UDR during the conflict in Northern Ireland.

The Sinn Fein MLA stressed that it was never his intention to defame Mr Elliott, and only realised the seriousness of the situation after taking legal advice.

Lawyers for AIG argued that he is ineligible for insurance cover because the policy did not cover libel cases between MLAs, and that the tweet had nothing to do with constituency or parliamentary business.

Although the judge rejected those submissions, he backed a further contention that the firm could refuse to indemnify Mr Flanagan because he knew his posting was defamatory.

“The question posed by the plaintiff was aimed personally at Mr Elliott,” he said.

“Furthermore, the question was not ‘if’ Mr Elliott had shot or harassed anyone.

“The question presupposed that Mr Elliott had harassed and had shot people and the only issue was whether he would reveal the number that he had harassed and the number that he had shot.”

Mr Justice Stephens also upheld a claim by AIG that the Sinn Fein representative took no precautions before publishing the tweet.

He pointed out that Mr Flanagan knew there was no evidence he could use as a defence to any libel proceedings against him.

Last month Mr Flanagan told BBC programme The View: “It would probably be unfair to ask Sinn Fein to cover the costs.

“If it’s only £50,000, that would be me asking Sinn Fein not to have two members of staff to cover me for something daft I said about Tom Elliott on Twitter.

“It’s something that’s always in the back of my mind, but I don’t think I’m overly worried about it because I don’t have the money to pay it. So I’m not going to lose too much sleep over it.”