Editorial: Michelle O'Neill is not shy to describe herself as first minister yet has taken a thin skinned libel action that wasted court time - why is she not being ordered to pay costs?
Defamation laws across the Irish Sea had been changed almost a decade before because of fears that the UK was becoming a centre for libel tourism – a place where powerful or wealthy litigants could more easily win damages after criticism.
The new act here strengthened defences to libel such as publication in the public interest, but did not adopt a crucial test that applies in England and Wales: that the plaintiff must have suffered ‘serious harm’ to their reputation. Thus Northern Ireland remains more plaintiff-friendly than the rest of the UK.
Yesterday, a libel case brought by Michelle O’Neill ended. The Sinn Fein leader, who labels herself as first minister (designate) for Northern Ireland, and praises herself as being so “for all” the people of NI, took action against an ex-DUP councillor who said she should be “put back in her kennel”.
The message, posted on Facebook in 2021, was utterly unacceptable, and the politician in question John Carson demeaned himself in using such abusive language. He then suffered an excessive penalty, suspension for three months by a local government standards watchdog.
When Ms O’Neill took her case the new libel law was not in effect. She lost even so. The judge has explained at length why Mr Carson’s comments were appalling, while not libellous. He rightly says serious cases are delayed “when the court’s time is taken up with cases involving disputes between politicians involving insults … heard in school playgrounds or outside pubs”. Why then did he not order Ms O’Neill to pay the full costs of the case? In London a senior politician would be ridiculed for taking up precious court time in such a case. If Ms O’Neill is so sure she is capable of a post as arduous as prime minister, she needs a much thicker skin.