Passages removed from Hansard amid fears of libel proceedings over McGuinness claim
An edition of the official Hansard record of what was said in the Assembly Chamber had to retrospectively remove some of what MLAs had said after Peter Robinson threatened to sue.
Declassified government files reveal that the then DUP deputy leader’s actions prompted the Secretary of State to decide that full privilege from defamation should be given to the Assembly to stop the situation recurring.
Initially, the shadow Assembly set up after the Good Friday Agreement had been given ‘qualified privilege’ from defamation claims — a robust form of legal protection from libel actions which is afforded to media reports of parliamentary debates. However, in certain circumstances — such as where there is malice — a libel action can still proceed even if something is covered by qualified privilege.
In an urgent September 2, 1998 memo to Secretary of State Mo Mowlam, senior civil servant Tony McCusker told her that “following the first meeting of the Assembly, Peter Robinson indicated to the presiding officer [the Assembly Speaker] that he might take legal action for defamation against Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein for remarks made during that day’s business.
“While no written confirmation has emerged to suggest that any action is going ahead, it nevertheless remains a possibility and could do so for up to 12 months.
“On hearing of Mr Robinson’s intention, the presiding officer decided not to issue any further copies of the first day’s business until legal advice could be taken on the matter. The Official Report was also withheld from the Assembly’s website until the matter was resolved.”
The civil servant said that Assembly officials had taken legal advice from the Chief Crown Solicitor’s Office which had advised that “further copies of the report could now be issued with the offending sections omitted but instead inserting the words ‘Remarks made at this point may be subject to legal proceedings and have therefore been omitted’.”
He said the legal advice was that future Hansard reports may have to follow the same principle and Assembly Speaker Lord Alderdice was content to follow that advice — but had asked the NIO to give the Assembly full privilege.
He said that if that did not happen, not only could the Assembly face libel actions, but broadcasters airing Assembly debates could also face damages claims.
NIO minister Paul Murphy responded to the memo with one sentence: “I am firmly of the view that there should be full privilege for the Assembly.”
Two days later, Stephen Webb in the NIO’s constitutional and political division said that “there are obvious risks to full privilege for any body”.
He said that if the Assembly became a proper legislature, then that risk was outweighed by the need for unfettered debate. However, if devolution was delayed, he said that “members might be tempted to abuse the system for grandstanding purposes… privilege was badly abused in the 1982-86 Assembly, with Rev McCrea reading out lists of names and addresses of alleged IRA members under the full privilege of the Assembly”.
It is unclear what was said which prompted Mr Robinson’s legal threat. To this day, the Hansard of the July 1, 1998 Assembly does not contain the removed words, but a message which says they “may be subject to legal proceedings and have therefore been omitted”.