Northern Ireland

Role of journalists in holding people to account highlighted after Kelly judgment

Sinn Féin man’s “vexatious” defamation case thrown out

A judge has thrown out a libel case brought by Sinn Fein MLA Gerry Kelly
Simon Byrne resignation A judge has thrown out a libel case brought by Sinn Fein MLA Gerry Kelly (Liam McBurney/PA)

An MLA and defamation law campaigner has spoken of the importance of journalists in holding people to account after a judge described proceedings taken by Sinn Féin MLA Gerry Kelly as “scandalous, frivolous and vexatious”.

UUP assembly member Mike Nesbitt, who also sists on the Policing Board, spoke out after defamation action taken by the north Belfast assembly member against commentator Malachi O’Doherty was thrown out of court on Monday.

The Sinn Féin man launched proceedings after Mr O’Doherty gave two radio interviews during which he claimed Mr Kelly shot a prison officer during the IRAs 1983 H-Block escape.

Mr Kelly was found not guilty at trial in 1987.

In his judgment Master Evan Bell said the proceedings were being struck out “on the basis that they are scandalous, frivolous and vexatious”.

Convicted for the 1973 Old Bailey bombing in London, Mr was later elected as an MLA for north Belfast.

He also sits Policing Board and recently took part in the panel that oversaw the appointment of PSNI chief constable Jon Boucher.

Mr Kelly described the High Court ruling as a “substantive judgment” and said: “I will take time to study it with my legal advisor.”

Police officer shot in Omagh
UUP MLA Mike Nesbitt

Mr Nesbitt said on Monday there is currently no mechanism to remove Mr Kelly as a member of the Policing Board.

“The legislation allows for a minister to remove a member of the board in certain circumstances, probably in and around bringing the board into disrepute,” he said.

“But of course, there’s no minister.

“There is no statutory provision to allow for some sort of read across from the judgment to his membership of the board.”

Mr Nesbitt talked about the importance of journalism to the north’s political system.

“Journalism has, I think a greater role to play in Northern Ireland, Great Britain or event the Republic, because normally we don’t have an official opposition, although we will if Stormont comes back,” he said.

“And we don’t have a second reviewing chamber, like the Seanad or Lords, so really it falls on journalists to hold people to account much more than those other jurisdictions where the other bodies play a role.

“To that extent people like Malachi O’Doherty need maximum freedom to express reasonable opinion, which the judge seems to believe is what happened in this case.”

In his ruling the judge said Mr Kelly’s case amounted to a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP) - which are generally viewed as attempts to silence journalists.

A private members’ bill brought by Mr Nesbitt and passed at the assembly in 2022, which later became the Defamation Act, modernised libel law in the north.

Mr Nesbitt said there is now an obligation on the Department of Finance to “review the workings of the act but also to keep abreast of developments in the area”.

“So they are consulting on that at the moment and Slapps are pretty much top of the list,” he said.

Mr Nesbitt added that “Sinn Féin seem particularly adept at issuing writs at the moment”.

“It should give people pause for thought when they read the judgment and the strength of language.”