Taxpayer-funded MLA libel insurance not renewed

Sinn Fein's Phil Flanagan at the High Court in Belfast
Sinn Fein's Phil Flanagan at the High Court in Belfast

Controversial taxpayer-funded insurance which indemnified MLAs who were responsible for libel has been ended by the Assembly, the News Letter can reveal.

The insurance – which was part of the Assembly’s wider Employer’s and Public Liability insurance policy – first emerged publicly in 2013 after it was used to settle a case which Baroness Nuala O’Loan had taken against DUP MLA Paul Givan over comments which he made in a televised interview.

It is believed that other MLAs may have privately settled libel claims by using the insurance cover. A week ago the News Letter asked the Assembly for details of all claims against the insurance, but at the time of going to press the Assembly had not responded to that question.

MLAs are already protected by absolute privilege while speaking during Assembly proceedings, meaning that they can only be sued for remarks outside the chamber.

Last Friday the insurance policy played a prominent role in a libel action taken by Ulster Unionist MP Tom Elliott against Sinn Fein MLA Phil Flanagan, who had libellously accused him of having “harassed and shot” people during his period in the UDR.

On Friday, Mr Flanagan accepted that allegation was utterly without foundation and agreed to pay Mr Elliott compensation, which will be set by a judge, as well as his legal costs.

However, it also emerged in court that the enormous delay in Mr Flanagan publicly withdrawing his 2014 allegation was due to his hope that the Assembly’s insurers would pay for the action.

The insurers have refused to cover his claim and he is now suing them in a separate action due to come to court at the end of this month.

The Assembly said that the reason the insurer is refusing to cover Mr Flanagan’s claim is that it involves two individuals who were Assembly e mployees at the time.

An Assembly spokeswoman said: “Under the terms of the combined policy, the insured is ‘the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission’.

“The policy indemnifies for claims against the ‘insured’, and as both of these individuals are deemed to be ‘the insured’, indemnity does not apply.”

The Assembly also confirmed that it no longer has libel insurance for MLAs.

A spokeswoman said: “The combined policy does not provide cover of this nature. Prior to 2015, the insurance provided cover for ‘personal injury’ which included libel and slander.

“On renewal of the policy from April 1, 2015, the Assembly Commission was informed that this aspect would no longer be included as part of the standard policy so cover is not included.”

The Assembly’s current premium for combined Employer’s and Public Liability insurance costs £32,100 – a slight fall from the £33,735 which it cost in the previous two years. It is believed that the Assembly did not take a policy decision to drop its libel cover but that it changed insurer last year and the new insurer did not include the cover.