Sinn Féin shows little sign of dropping libel actions in aftermath of legal setbacks

Deputy first minister Michelle O'Neill and North Belfast MLA Gerry Kelly
Sinn Féin deputy leader Michelle O'Neill and North Belfast MLA Gerry Kelly

The dismissal of Gerry Kelly’s libel case is the third time in recent months that court action taken by a senior Sinn Féin figure has concluded with what the litigant would likely regard as an unfavourable outcome. But will it quell the party’s appetite for launching libel actions?

The High Court in Belfast struck out the North Belfast MLA’s case against journalist Malachi O’Doherty, describing it as “scandalous, frivolous and vexatious”.

In November, first minister designate Michelle O’Neill was criticised for bringing a case which a High Court judge said involved insults “heard in school playgrounds”.

“This is undesirable and not in the public interest,” Master Evan Bell said in his summing up, terming the dispute with former DUP councillor John Carson as a “minor case”.

Later the same month, the High Court in Dublin dismissed a separate case taken by Ms O’Neill’s former special adviser at Stormont’s Department of Agriculture.

Liam Lappin, with an address in Drumcondra, Dublin, claimed he was defamed in an article published by the Sunday Life newspaper in March 2020, which contained a photograph of him and 13 others at a Sinn Féin Christmas party.

Former Stormont special adviser Liam Lappin's libel claim was dismissed
Former Stormont special adviser Liam Lappin's libel claim was dismissed

Mr Justice Charles Meenan rejected the schoolteacher and Sinn Féin constituency organiser’s claim that the article, either in its ordinary meaning or by innuendo, meant he was a murderer and an IRA member.

It could be argued that the negative publicity arising from such public slap downs from the judiciary would prompt Sinn Féin to reconsider launching libel actions, though there’s little evidence yet of that being the case.

In the south, party leader Mary Lou McDonald is suing the broadcaster RTÉ for defamation, while Dublin Bay South TD Chris Andrews is suing the Irish Times and the paper’s political correspondent Harry Magee.

Ms McDonald’s husband, Martin Lanigan, is suing Shane Ross, the Republic’s former transport minister turned author, who wrote an unauthorised biography of the Sinn Féin president.

In the north, North Belfast MP John Finucane is suing DUP councillor Marc Collins over Twitter claims.

The volume of litigation from senior Sinn Féin figures has been criticised by political opponents and by groups promoting media freedom.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said last year that such actions were “designed to make journalists afraid”, while a coalition of press freedom organisations said the party’s actions had the hallmark of strategic lawsuits against public participation, or Slapps, a form of legal harassment intended to intimidate and silence public watchdogs.

The Sinn Féin leader has strongly rejected accusations that her party is trying to silence the media by mounting legal actions.

In the wake of Mr Andrews launching his case against the Irish Times, Ms McDonald said that people “have the right to use the mechanisms available to them to vindicate their name”.