Belfast Telegraph

Pressure mounting for Northern Ireland libel laws to mirror rest of UK

BY NOEL MCADAM

Senior Lords are throwing their weight behind demands for the new laws on libel to be extended to Northern Ireland.

They failed to persuade fellow peers to include the issue in the Miscellaneous Provisions legislation (NI) which includes a range of subjects – among them, the prospect of a Stormont opposition.

The legislation is currently going through its 'report stage', which allowed the controversy over the failure to include Northern Ireland in the new defamation law to be raised in the Upper House.

Former First Minister Lord Trimble said he hoped the Stormont Executive would pay attention to the debate, while ex-Assembly Speaker and Alliance Party leader Lord Alderdice said ministers had not given any reasons for the current position.

Proposing the amendment, Conservative Lord Lexden, a historian, said the new widely-welcomed libel law in England and Wales had been more carefully thought through than any other legislation in recent years, with carefully constructed balance.

He added: "Not in Northern Ireland. For the first time, Northern Ireland now has a different libel law."

The Tory peer said it was only the persistence of journalists which had brought the issue into public view.

Lord Black of Brentwood, executive director of the Telegraph Media Group, said: "We know from the work of the Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt that the people of Northern Ireland want the same protection of free speech that it will bring as those in the rest of the UK."

Former Secretary of State Tom King, Baron King of Bridgwater, said while he did not understand the reasons behind the Executive's position, it was still a matter for Northern Ireland ministers to decide on. The amendment also has the backing of heavyweight legal figures, including the former Northern Ireland Lord Chief Justice Robert Carswell, the author of the Defamation Act Lord Lester and leading libel lawyer Lord Pannick.

Responding for the coalition government, Junior Minister Baroness Randerson said: "It is for the Assembly and not the government to hold the Executive to account."

The amendment was then withdrawn with peers being urged to keep a "watching brief" on the issue.

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