Belfast Telegraph

I didn't know tweet was libel: MLA in legal bid to have insurer pay £50k

By Alan Erwin

A Sinn Fein MLA ordered to pay nearly £50,000 damages for falsely implying a political rival harassed and shot people was unaware his tweet was libellous, he told the High Court.

Phil Flanagan insisted he believed comments posted about UUP MP Tom Elliott took the form of a question. He said he made them after listening to a "one-sided" radio discussion on Northern Ireland's troubled past.

Mr Flanagan is taking legal action against an insurance firm over its refusal to provide cover for the libel award against him.

Last week a judge ruled he must pay £48,750 compensation to Mr Elliott for making baseless allegations his conduct a member of the UDR.

Mr Elliott, the MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, sued over the tweet 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 responded to his political rival's comments.

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 post was seen by 167 of Mr Flanagan's followers before it was taken down.

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 an agreed statement he accepted his tweet was untrue, wholly without foundation and apologised for all offence caused.

Mr Justice Stephens 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.

The court heard yesterday that cover provided for libel and slander claims was capped at £1m annually and excluded any cases where MLAs know that their comments are defamatory.

Mr Flanagan told how he sent his tweet from Stormont's car park after listening to the BBC radio show on his journey to Parliament Buildings.

"I was disappointed to hear a one-sided narrative... as to what happened during the conflict," the MLA said.

"The intention of the tweet was to highlight the fact that there are many questions to be asked of the UDR about its role in the conflict. And I think an awful lot of my constituents don't accept the UDR had a role as spectator. A lot of my constituents believe the UDR were a participant over several decades."

His intention was to highlight how not everyone shares the view that there was "one set of good guys and one set of bad guys" during the Troubles, he said.

Asked by his barrister if he intended to defame Mr Elliott, the Sinn Fein MLA replied: "Certainly not."

He told Mr Justice Stephens that it was only after taking legal advice that he realised the seriousness of the situation.

During cross-examination, counsel for AIG Europe Ltd put it to him that he knew his tweet was "outrageously defamatory".

But Mr Flanagan insisted: "I framed it in the form of a question, thinking I wasn't making an allegation."

The case continues.

Belfast Telegraph


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