Sinn Fein MLA Phil Flanagan to pay UUP's Tom Elliott almost £50k in compensation for falsely implying he shot people
A Sinn Fein MLA must pay an Ulster Unionist MP nearly £50,000 compensation for falsely implying he had harassed and shot people, a High Court judge ordered today.
Mr Justice Stephens ruled that Phil Flanagan's untrue tweet about political rival Tom Elliott's conduct during his previous career as a soldier was grossly defamatory.
The "baseless" allegation was aggravated by Mr Flanagan's failure to publish an apology until the former UUP leader took him to court, he held.
The judge said: "To state that a senior politician, who had been the leader of a political party in Northern Ireland, was responsible for harassing and shooting people during his service with the UDR (Ulster Defence Regiment)... is a most serious libel."
Deciding that the comments merited £75,000 in damages, the judge reduced that figure by 35% to reflect steps since taken by Mr Flanagan, including his ultimate apology and offer to pay damages.
He awarded £48,750, but put a stay on any payout until Mr Flanagan resolves his legal action with insurers used by Assembly members over a refusal to indemnify him.
Mr Elliott, the Ulster Unionist 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 Elliottt 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 re-tweeted the comments before they were taken down within an hour.
But Mr Elliott said he was alerted to the contents by a number of sources, including victim's campaigner Ann Travers, whose sister Mary was murdered by the IRA in 1984.
Arlene Foster, his former party colleague and current First Minister and Democratic Unionist leader, 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 agreeing to pay compensation and costs.
In court last month an agreed statement was read out in which Mr Flanagan accepted his tweet was untrue, wholly without foundation and apologising for all offence caused.
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.
Although Mr Flanagan offered no evidence, Mr Elliott told how he served in the UDR from 1982-1992, and then with the Royal Irish Regiment for another seven years.
Asked for his reaction on learning of the tweet, he said at last month's hearing: "I was astonished, I was shocked and in many ways disappointed."
Mr Elliott added: "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 UDR that was going to have an impact on me but also my family as well."
Ruling on the level of compensation today, Mr Justice Stephens said the appropriate award was sensitive to the limited publication of the defamatory statement.
Although he stressed the gravity of the libel, he held that the UUP representative would be less affected than others with no experience of dealing with "the heat of political debate".
Mr Elliott was not "shunned, pilloried or ostracised", having been elected as MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, the judge added.
He also ordered Mr Flanagan to pay costs of the libel action.