Belfast Telegraph

Writers pen a letter to Northern Ireland First Ministers urging a shake-up of libel law

By Rebecca Black

A poet, a professor, award-winning novelists and the creator of Father Ted have put pen to paper to urge First Minister Peter Robinson to prevent Northern Ireland's courts becoming a "new forum for libel bullies".

Thirty-one authors – including novelists Colm Toibin, Roddy Doyle, Sebastian Barry, Father Ted writer Graham Linehan, former Beirut hostage Brian Keenan, academic and political analyst Lord Bew, poet Michael Longley and Lucy Caldwell, whose book All The Beggars Riding was selected as Belfast's second One City One Book choice, have signed a letter to Mr Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.

They wrote that without libel reform "the people of Northern Ireland will enjoy fewer free speech protections than fellow citizens in England and Wales".

Their letter concluded: "We call upon the Executive to redress this imbalance, and breathe life into the right that underpins all other rights: our right to freedom of speech."

Later this year, Northern Ireland will fall out of line with the rest of the UK after a new Westminster Defamation Bill comes into force. It updates the UK's archaic 19th century libel laws to take account of the internet and protect journals.

There are fears that failing to adopt the changes could result in Belfast becoming a global capital for "libel tourism", where people from outside the UK would come to Northern Ireland to sue foreign publications – which may only sell a few copies in Northern Ireland, or are on the internet.

Westminster was spurred on to legislate after US courts refused to enforce UK libel laws on free speech grounds.

The new Bill requires litigants to show they have suffered serious harm before going to court. It also allows defences of honest opinion and public interest provided necessary corrections are printed.

In their letter, the group of writers said if the Stormont Executive takes no action to extend reform to Northern Ireland, there could be "severe repercussions for libel reform throughout the UK".

Finance Minister Simon Hamilton commissioned an official report on the new Westminster legislation and whether it should be extended here, while a public consultation on Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt's Bill will be officially launched on Thursday.

FACTFILE

The Defamation Bill 2013, which aims to reform libel and free speech law, comes into force this year – but will not be extended to Northern Ireland because the Executive missed a Westminster legislative deadline. The Bill is aimed at discouraging "libel tourism". Now a group of leading writers has come forward to plead with the Executive to reform libel laws here too.

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