Nine years after DUP secretly blocked libel reform, NIO clears way for bill to protect free speech

The government has cleared the way for Northern Ireland’s libel laws to be reformed to strengthen protections for free speech – and said it welcomed a belated attempt to do so.

Thursday, 20th May 2021, 7:01 am
The government has cleared the way for Mike Nesbitt’s libel reform bill

Eight years ago the News Letter revealed that the DUP had secretly vetoed the extension of Westminster’s Defamation Bill to Northern Ireland – something which the Executive never even discussed.

Excluding Northern Ireland from what is now the Defamation Act 2013 meant that protections for free speech in Northern Ireland became weaker than in other parts of the UK, and it is more difficult for journalism in the public interest or honest scientific research to be defended in the courts.

At the time, leading lawyer and libel reform campaigner Lord Lester said that he could think of no reason for Stormont blocking libel reform other than that politicians wanted to be able “to be able to sue newspapers more readily”.

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At the time, Ulster Unionist MLA Mike Nesbitt attempted to reverse the decision by tabling a private member’s bill in the Assembly to extend the Westminster reform.

However, that was curtailed when the DUP finance minister set up a review of the issue. That ultimately recommended reform four years later but nine years after the original decision there is still no sign of the Executive acting.

Last year Mr Nesbitt sought to resurrect his private member’s bill.

However, the Assembly Speaker, Alex Maskey,is understood to have told Mr Nesbitt that he did not believe the bill was within the legislative competence of the Assembly because some of its clauses relate to online content.

Mr Nesbitt then wrote to the Secretary of State in an attempt to progress the issue and now he has said that not only is Stormont able to press ahead with the issue, but that the government welcomes such a development.

In a letter to Mr Nesbitt, NIO minister of state Robin Walker said: “I welcome that the proposed bill will seek to put Northern Ireland in line with the rest of the United Kingdom.

“ I agree that the Secretary of State’s consent is required for the provisions and clauses set out in your letter. On behalf of the Secretary of State, I am content to grant consent to the consideration of the bill by the Assembly.”

Mr Nesbitt said: “I have been trying for over five years to bring Northern Ireland’s defamation laws into line with the rest of the United Kingdom, but have been frustrated by a number of obstacles.”

The Strangford MLA said that the DUP’s decision to block reform nine years ago had been “shameful”.

He added: “I intend to right that wrong. Defamation may not seem like an important matter on the face of it, but there is a need to keep a proper balance between freedom of speech and the protection of reputations.

“My proposals will help protect investigative journalism. With no Official Opposition at Stormont, or a second revising chamber such as the Lords in London or Seanad Éireann in Dublin, the role of the media in scrutinising the work of the Executive is even more important here than elsewhere.”

He said the bill would also protect academics, some of whom have faced legal intimidation from wealthy individuals or corporations.

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