Northern Ireland

Michelle O’Neill says no Sinn Fein policy to ‘silence anybody’ after Kelly legal action

Individual party members are entitled to decide themselves if they want to pursue legal action, the deputy leader said.

Michelle O’Neill (right) said people are entitled to defend their name in relation to a legal action by Gerry Kelly (left)
Gerry Kelly and Michelle O'Neill Michelle O’Neill (right) said people are entitled to defend their name in relation to a legal action by Gerry Kelly (left) (Rebecca Black/PA)

Deputy leader Michelle O’Neill said Sinn Fein has no “joined-up or concerted effort” to silence anybody through legal action after a party MLA was ordered to pay costs in a failed defamation action.

Ms O’Neill said individual party members are entitled to decide themselves if they want to pursue legal action.

She was speaking after a High Court judge in Belfast threw out a claim brought by MLA Gerry Kelly against a journalist, ruling it was “scandalous, frivolous and vexatious”.

He was ordered to pay costs in the case he had brought against Malachi O’Doherty, who had said Mr Kelly shot a prison officer during an escape from the Maze prison in 1983.

The Sinn Fein representative had claimed the comments broadcast on radio had damaged his reputation but Master of Belfast High Court Evan Bell said books written by the MLA about the prison escape meant his libel action could not succeed.

The judge’s ruling stated: “For that reason, the court strikes them out on the basis that they are scandalous, frivolous and vexatious.”

Sinn Fein politicians have regularly been criticised for launching legal actions against journalists and elected representatives.

Speaking to reporters outside Belfast City Hall, Ms O’Neill said: “Any of us – whether you’d be in public office or a citizen of our society – everyone’s entitled to defend their good name.

“If you feel like you’ve been defamed at any time, then you are entitled, as the law says, to take a case.

“I commend that to anyone who feels that that’s where they need to be.

“In terms of any concerted effort or deliberate attempt on our part – I’m Sinn Fein vice president, I’m a senior member of a party, and I can assure you there is no joined-up or concerted effort to silence anybody.”

In the High Court ruling this week, Master Bell said the libel proceedings brought by Mr Kelly bore the hallmarks of a strategic lawsuits against public participation (Slapp) case.

He said: “On the balance of probabilities, therefore, the proceedings do bear the hallmarks of a Slapp and have been initiated not for the genuine purposes of vindicating a reputation injured by defamatory statements, but rather for the purpose of stifling the voices of his troublesome critics.”