Ben Lowry: Flanagan’s libel was vile but it should not lead to financial ruin

Former Sinn Fein MLA Phil Flanagan
Former Sinn Fein MLA Phil Flanagan

Phil Flanagan’s libel of Tom Elliott was, as the court found, an “outrageous” one.

The former Sinn Fein MLA articulated a common republican view, albeit one they more often hint at than state baldly, that the UDR engaged in routine murder (perhaps via loyalists).

Ben Lowry News Letter Deputy Editor

Ben Lowry News Letter Deputy Editor

This nonsense, disproved by any study of Troubles death lists that will show woeful loyalist intelligence, gains traction by the day and is aided by endless investigations into alleged ‘collusion’.

Mr Flanagan was then pig headed (or so it seems) in the aftermath of his tweet, and ignored Mr Elliott’s appropriate demands for a retraction.At that stage the Fermanagh and South Tyrone MP was not even seeking damages.

Mr Flanagan ultimately found himself in court and judged guilty of a clear and grave libel and liable for almost £50,000 damages.

Then he launched a seemingly ill-advised claim against his insurer, which he has lost.

He now faces a six figure bill for the damages and court costs.

The case has epitomised the arrogance of Sinn Fein. It can seem that republicans are indulged at every turn by the courts, including legal aid and rights-based claims alleging maltreatment.

It is welcome that the courts have upheld that it is a libel to assume that UDR men shot people, because the day could come when that sort of rubbish is official history.

But for all Mr Flanagan’s obduracy and obvious culpability, it seems wrong that a case like this leads to financial ruin.

Libel law reform, which Northern Ireland needs, is only a part solution to such situations. Even post-reform England and Wales would have (rightly) judged this a libel causing serious harm. Such protection is important in the age of social media.

People who digitally disseminate grievous libels must know that they will face financial consequences. But libel reform in GB has not cut the shocking costs of libel cases that reach court. Here and abroad, societies need forums for fines and redress, perhaps after mediation.

To consider libel in the civil law context, should a grave libel seen by a small number of people, if publicly retracted, be worth damages equivalent to a lifelong physical injury?

Or in the criminal law context, should (for example) serious, calculating environmental offenders get much smaller fines than the bill Mr Flanagan faces?

Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor