None of the Defamation Act 2013 has been extended to Northern Ireland, and former Minister for Finance & Personnel Sammy Wilson MLA said he had "no plans" to review the law. This leaves citizens in Northern Ireland with far fewer free speech protections than their neighbours elsewhere in the UK.
Leading writers call for libel reform in Northern Ireland
Thirty-one authors from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have called on the Northern Ireland Executive to introduce libel reform, warning that ‘Northern Ireland may become a new forum for libel bullies.’
The authors include Paul Bew, Lucy Caldwell, Anne Devlin, Roddy Doyle, Carolyn Jess-Cooke, Brian Keenan, Graham Linehan, Bernard MacLaverty, Gary Mitchell, Paul Muldoon, Christina Reid and Colm Tóibín.
The libel laws of England and Wales were reformed earlier this year, when Parliament passed the Defamation Act 2013 with cross-party support in Westminster. The new law includes measures to weed out trivial and vexatious claims, to limit libel tourism, and introduces a public interest defence.
However, the Northern Ireland Executive has so far made no plans to extend the provisions to Northern Ireland. In an open letter to First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuiness, the group of 31 authors, playwrights and poets says that this omission means ‘the people of Northern Ireland will enjoy fewer free speech protections than their fellow citizens in England and Wales’.
The authors also express concern for the development of literature in Northern Ireland. ‘As writers, we are particularly concerned about the impact of the unreformed libel laws on the freedom to write: biographers, historians, journalists and even novelists will remain vulnerable to libel actions on trivial and vexatious grounds. The mere threat of a libel action is also enough to discourage publishers from touching controversial subjects’ they write.
Although the Executive has signalled it does not intend to legislate on this issue, other members of the Stormont Assembly intend to open the debate for libel reform. Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt MLA will launch a consultation on a Private Members’ Defamation Bill on 19 September.
The signatories to the letter to the First Minister and the Deptuty First Minister are: Sebastian Barry, Paul Bew, Lucy Caldwell, Paul Charles, Gerald Dawe, Anne Devlin, Roddy Doyle, Carolyn Jess-Cooke, Brian Keenan, Graham Linehan, Michael Longley, Edna Longley, Bernard MacLaverty, Roisin McAuley, Brian McAvera, Anne McCartney, Michael McDowell, Tim McGarry, Frank McGuinness, Christina McKenna, Adrian McKinty, Gary Mitchell, Paul Muldoon, Stuart Neville, Glenn Patterson, Henry Patterson, Damon Quinn, Graham Reid, Christina Reid, Anne Tannahill and Colm Tóibín.
The full text of the letter organised by English PEN is available here. (pdf)
The Bookseller Novelists call for change in Northern Ireland libel laws