Sinn Féin MLA Phil Flanagan to pay out libel damages

Ulster Unionist Tom Elliott who has won his libel claim
Ulster Unionist Tom Elliott who has won his libel claim Ulster Unionist Tom Elliott who has won his libel claim

A SINN Féin MLA is to pay libel damages to an Ulster Unionist MP for falsely suggesting he had harassed and shot people, the High Court has been told.

Phil Flanagan also apologised for a defamatory and untrue tweet about political rival Tom Elliott's conduct during his previous career as a soldier.

At a hearing to decide on the level of compensation to be awarded, Mr Elliott said the groundless allegations left him shocked and fearing for his safety.

He told Mr Justice Stephens: "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."

Mr Elliott, a former Ulster Unionist leader and the party's current 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 Féin 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.

Former party colleague and DUP leader Arlene Foster 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.

However, the court heard he is currently in dispute with insurers used by Assembly members over a refusal to indemnify him.

Both politicians were present in court for legal arguments about the scale of payout.

An agreed statement was also 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 Féin MLA also gave an undertaking to publish the statement on his Twitter account.

Although Mr Flanagan offered no evidence in court, Mr Elliott told how he served in the Ulster Defence Regiment 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: "I was astonished, I was shocked and in many ways disappointed."

At first he was frustrated at the false allegations, but then became more concerned as people contacted him about it, he explained.

"I had a specific threat that came through a local media outlet a few years prior to that, I had my personal and family security reviewed at that time, and obviously this brought all that back," Mr Elliott added.

Mr Justice Stephens was told Mr Flanagan has been unable to advance an offer of compensation because of the unresolved issue with insurance.

The defendant's barrister, Desmond Fahy, argued that because of his client's efforts to make amends the judge should heavily discount the level of damages decided on.

But David Dunlop, for Mr Elliott, argued that it took until yesterday's hearing to secure a public apology.

"The defendant had every opportunity from May 1, 2014 until January 8, 2016 to tweet that what he said was untrue and wholly without foundation and to apologise to the plaintiff, but he hasn't done so and he has called no evidence to explain why he hasn't done so," Mr Dunlop argued.

Claiming the discount on compensation should be limited, he added: "Accusing a person who has a responsible position as an elected representative and who has previously served as a soldier in the Ministry of Defence of harassing and shooting people must be towards the top end of the scale."

Judgment was reserved on the level of damages.

Pledging to give his verdict as soon as possible, the judge said: "The case has raised points I have to reflect on and consider."

Last month Mr Flanagan was deselected by Sinn Féin after failing to get the necessary support from delegates at a selection convention in his Fermanagh-South Tyrone constituency.

Party activists instead chose former MP Michelle Gildernew, sitting MLA Sean Lynch and Councillor John Feely.

It followed the decision of fellow sitting Fermanagh-South Tyrone MLA Bronwyn McGahan not to seek nomination for May's assembly election.