Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 December 2014

Free speech: as Sammy Wilson speaks out, questions still remain

Stormont Finance Minister Sammy Wilson
Stormont Finance Minister Sammy Wilson

Finance Minister Sammy Wilson has denied personally killing off important free speech protections by withdrawing them from the Executive agenda.

"I didn't withdraw the paper, there was no need to," he told the Belfast Telegraph.

He said the paper died off and disappeared from ministerial in-trays when a Westminster deadline was missed and was never discussed at the Executive.

Now the only prospect for reforming our libel laws in line with the rest of the UK is through a Private Member's Bill – and one is being tabled by Mike Nesbitt, the Ulster Unionist leader, who is a former journalist.

The finance and personnel committee, which scrutinises Mr Wilson's department (DFP), is also seeking an explanation and will take evidence shortly.

Many laws passed at Westminster don't apply here unless they receive "legislative assent" from the Assembly. In this case, Westminster asked Mr Wilson to secure legislative assent for some important sections of the law to be extended here. They included extending qualified privilege – protection from being sued – to scientific research, as well as to fair and accurate reports of Press conferences and foreign court cases.

His paper warned that if the reforms weren't extended here it would result in "forum shopping" where people would travel to Northern Ireland to sue using libel laws which no longer applied in the rest of the UK.

The deadline for agreement was mid-June, just three weeks away, so Mr Wilson invoked 'Urgent Procedure'. That means that the First and Deputy First Ministers and their staff consider it a priority. In this case, they didn't report back and the measure was automatically withdrawn once the deadline was missed.

Neither the DFP nor the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) will provide an explanation. They either cite confidentiality or say that the other department has responsibility.

We asked the DFP: "Was the intention to stifle consideration of the Defamation Bill and libel reform at Stormont?"

A spokeswoman replied: "This is a question concerning confidential Executive business on which the department does not comment." The department also said there were now no plans to review libel legislation, though it is its responsibility.

Mr Wilson said: "A review of the libel law will not be conducted within this Assembly because all of my draftsmen's time has been taken up with the legislation on issues we are committed to."

The DUP is opposed to libel reform as a party. One DUP source said that libel tourism might bring money into our legal system. Speaking in Westminster last June, days before the deadline was missed by OFMDFM, Ian Paisley jnr predicted that the law might not apply here.

Mr Wilson said he backed statutory regulation of both lawyers and the Press and added: "My two favourite hate groups are journalists who write shoddy stories and lawyers who make stacks of money out of it."

Story so far

The Defamation Bill, which provides free speech protections, received Royal Assent last month but won't apply here. It aims to discourage "libel tourism". Responsibility here lies with Sammy Wilson's Finance Department. Last May he put forward a paper calling for some of the Bill to be extended here but it was withdrawn, effectively killing discussion and preventing the Bill being either considered by the Executive or debated in the Assembly.

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