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MP Elliott in libel victory over SF MLA's defamatory tweet he had shot people

By Alan Erwin

Published 09/01/2016

UUP MP Tom Elliott leaves court
UUP MP Tom Elliott leaves court
Sinn Fein MLA Phil Flanagan leaves the High Court in Belfast yesterday

A Sinn Fein MLA is to pay libel damages to an Ulster Unionist MP for falsely suggesting he had harassed and shot people.

Phil Flanagan also apologised for a defamatory and untrue tweet about political rival Tom Elliott's conduct during his previous career as a soldier.

At a High Court hearing to decide on the level of compensation to be awarded, Mr Elliott told how the groundless allegations left him shocked and fearing for his and his family's safety.

He told Mr Justice Stephens: "I needed to have concerns for my security.

"If people were to believe I shot or harassed people when I was a member of the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR), that was going to have an impact on me but also my family as well."

Mr Elliott, a former Ulster Unionist leader and the party's current MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, sued over the contents of a tweet back in May 2014.

At the time he had just been interviewed on BBC Radio Ulster's Nolan Show.

Mr Flanagan, a Sinn Fein representative at Stormont for the same constituency, then took to social media about the UUP politician's appearance.

He tweeted: "Tom Elliott talks to Stephen Nolan about the past. I wonder if he will reveal how many people he harassed or shot as a member of the UDR."

The posting was seen by 167 of Mr Flanagan's followers, six of whom retweeted the comments before they were taken down within an hour.

Mr Elliott said he was alerted to the contents by a number of sources, including victims' campaigner Ann Travers, whose sister Mary was murdered by the IRA in 1984.

Former party colleague and new DUP leader Arlene Foster was among others who contacted him.

Legal action culminated in the acceptance of an offer to make amends.

That involved Mr Flanagan recognising the defamatory and baseless allegations, formally apologising, and also agreeing to pay out compensation and court costs.

However, the court heard he was currently in dispute with insurers used by Assembly Members over a refusal to indemnify him.

Both politicians were present in court for legal arguments about the scale of payout.

An agreed statement was also read out in which Mr Flanagan accepted that his tweet was untrue and wholly without foundation. He also apologised for any offence.

It ended with Mr Elliott declaring himself fully vindicated and his reputation restored.

The Sinn Fein MLA also gave an undertaking to publish the statement on his Twitter account which he did.

In response, former MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone Michelle Gildernew posted a comment with three pound signs.

When asked to clarify the meaning behind the comment, she said: "I'm not even going to comment on that. I'm not going to get involved. Thanks, but no thanks."

Although Mr Flanagan offered no evidence in court, Mr Elliott told how he had served in the UDR from 1982 until 1992, and then with the Royal Irish Regiment for another seven years.

Asked for his reaction on learning of the tweet, he said: "I was astonished, I was shocked and in many ways disappointed."

At first he was frustrated at the false allegations, but then became more concerned as people contacted him about it.

"I had a specific threat that came through a local media outlet a few years prior to that," Mr Elliott added. "I had my personal and family security reviewed at that time, and obviously this brought all that back."

Mr Justice Stephens was told Mr Flanagan had been unable to advance an offer of compensation because of the unresolved issue with insurance.

The defendant's barrister Desmond Fahy argued that because of his client's efforts to make amends the judge should heavily discount the level of damages decided upon.

David Dunlop, for Mr Elliott, argued that it took until yesterday's hearing to secure a public apology.

"The defendant had every opportunity from May 1, 2014 until January 8, 2016 to tweet that what he said was untrue and wholly without foundation and to apologise to the plaintiff, but he hasn't done so and he has called no evidence to explain why he hasn't done so," Mr Dunlop argued.

Judgment was reserved on the level of damages.

Pledging to give his verdict as soon as possible, the judge said: "The case has raised points I have to reflect on and consider."

Belfast Telegraph

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