Northern Ireland’s libel laws are badly in need of reform

News Letter editorial
News Letter editorial

At the TUV conference at the weekend, the writer Ruth Dudley Edwards talked about how republicans had legacy skewed against security forces.

She told the Cookstown event that Sinn Fein existed for “destabilisation of Northern Ireland”.

Ms Dudley Edwards said how they are using “legal aid to persecute the British government” and how they had “an army of lawyers” to help them in their overall objectives.

Ms Dudley Edwards, who has written fiction and historical books, as well as lots of newspaper and magazine commentary, much of it critical of the IRA, said “you can’t write a thing” without lawyers “looking for anything you’ve written”.

You might, she said, be accused of libelling someone.

Ms Dudley Edwards did not mention, as an example of this, the time in the 1980s when the distinguished Sunday Times journalist’s Liam Clarke’s identification of Thomas ‘Slab’ Murphy as a senior IRA figure resulted in a libel trial. The Sunday Times won. Murphy, whose farm straddles the border, was later jailed for tax evasion.

Northern Ireland, unlike England and Wales, has not had its libel laws reformed. The reforms in Great Britain raised the bar before a claimant can successfully win damages. They must show that their reputation has suffered serious harm.

The failure to implement the same reform, and to deter opportunistic or vexatious claims, in Northern Ireland is a threat to free speech and good journalism, particularly in a time of growing pressures on the print media.

Influential people across society – lawyers, academics, politicians, journalists – have sought reform here. Among the most vulnerable groups are scientists, who face ruin if they uncover quack remedies but are sued by big drug companies.

The DUP has for a while been in a position to help bring about reform, first when it was dominant at Stormont, and now that it has influence at Westminster. It would be a fine day for the long tradition of press freedom if it helped bring about the change that is needed to our defamation laws.