Damning decision against ‘scandalous, frivolous and vexatious’ Gerry Kelly highlights need for ‘Slapp’ reform

The Irish News view: Journalists must have the freedom to express opinions and make reasonable criticism of political figures and their decisions

Sinn Féin MLA Gerry Kelly. Picture by Mal McCann
Sinn Féin MLA and Policing Board member Gerry Kelly - a convicted IRA bomber - has had a defamation action brought against journalist Malachi O'Doherty struck out

As a convicted IRA bomber who has celebrated his role in the 1983 Maze Prison escape, it will strike any reasonable person as bizarre that Sinn Féin MLA Gerry Kelly sincerely believed his reputation had been traduced by a couple of passing references to his colourful past by journalists.

Mr Kelly has even written two books on the notorious break-out. He has also taken part in a BBC   documentary and another with Shawshank Redemption star Morgan Freeman. Along with fellow escapees Bobby Storey and Brendan ‘Bik’ McFarlane, he was the main draw in an ‘H-Block Escape Night’ event in 2018, billed as telling the true story of the episode “as it happened”.

There are varying degrees of candour in these accounts about how one prison officer, James Andrew Ferris, died from a heart attack after being stabbed during the break-out and how another, John Adams, was shot in the head, though survived. Mr Kelly has long been believed to be intimately involved in the shooting.

One, therefore, should be able to say without fear of either contradiction or legal action that Mr Kelly was involved in the escape and the shooting of a prison officer.

Yet when the freelance journalist Malachi O’Doherty referred to this particular chapter of Mr Kelly’s past in exchanges on two separate radio programmes in 2019, the senior Sinn Féin figure attempted to sue him for stating he had shot a prison officer. He has taken a case against Ruth Dudley Edwards, another freelance, for making almost identical comments.

On Monday, the High Court agreed, in the most emphatic manner, to an application by Mr O’Doherty that Mr Kelly’s claim should be struck out.

In a decision that offers not one scintilla of comfort to Mr Kelly, Master Evan Bell described Mr Kelly’s case as “scandalous, frivolous and vexatious”. Mr Kelly was acquitted in criminal proceedings, in 1988, of involvement in the shooting of Mr Adams. However, the pages of his own books appear to make Mr Kelly civilly liable, on the balance of probabilities, for the shooting of Mr Adams, noted Master Bell in his decision.

This is an important judgment. It gives an insight into how public figures, including politicians, attempt to use defamation proceedings to silence reasonable criticism from journalists.

This is an important judgment. It gives an insight into how public figures, including politicians, attempt to use defamation proceedings to silence reasonable criticism from journalists

In an especially damning section of the judgment, Master Evans addresses this directly: “The proceedings appear to be a strategic effort to intimidate them, to deprive them of time and resources, and ultimately to silence them.”

It is clear that the law needs to change to prevent these so-called Slapp - Strategic lawsuit against public participation - actions and their chilling effect. Sinn Féin and the DUP have dragged their feet on defamation reform previously; perhaps a restored Stormont will see a change of heart.

The judgment is important for another reason. Sinn Féin has, correctly, been vocal about how the British government should not be able to deny or obscure its past actions during the Troubles, as highlighted by its legacy legislation. Nor should revisionist Sinn Féin representatives be able to pretend that shameful episodes from their own pasts did not happen.