Blocking libel reform is hurting DUP most

Posted By: July 11, 2015

Newton Emerson.Irish News ( Belfast).Saturday, July 11, 2015

IT is no accident that allegations involving Nama and “a Northern Ireland politician or party” were made in the Oireachtas, as that is the one place in Ireland where a public statement can be made without the risk of being sued (Stormont has only ‘qualified’ parliamentary privilege.)

Before independent TD Mick Wallace dropped his bombshell, writs or the fear of writs had silenced all reporting of a tale multiple news outlets had been aware of for months.

The DUP’s blocking of libel reform has now had a demonstrable chilling effect on breaking a story in which the party has been implicated. Ironically, the main victim of this is the DUP itself.

It appears to have blocked reform for reasons no worse than spite and stupidity but the effect is a mounting whiff around every subsequent scandal. If only the DUP heeded the verse from Jeremiah that once adorned Ian Paisley’s website: “Publish, and set up a standard; Publish and conceal not.”

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The PSNI took no interest in the Nama story until receiving a complaint from TUV leader Jim Allister, who noted his “surprise” that police had not initiated an investigation.

This followed a week of increasingly strangulated implications from the PSNI that it could not act without a complaint, which of course is complete nonsense – particularly in an allegation of fraud, where an offence can occur even if no notional victim suffers an actual loss. A more plausible line is required on why certain cases are not pursued.

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The first casualty of the Nama story is the Law Society of Northern Ireland, which has become the laughing stock of Northern Ireland. First it said it could not comment, then it said it was investigating Ian Coulter – the solicitor at the centre of the allegations – then it said it could not investigate him as his licence to practice had lapsed five months ago, then it said it could investigate him after all as he was still on the roll of solicitors, then it said it would cooperate with any police investigation, as if that was optional.

It is bad enough that the Law Society here, unlike in Britain, still both represents and regulates solicitors, without it being unsure when it can regulate a solicitor or even being unsure when someone is a solicitor.

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The strange demise of marching passions was in evidence outside Stormont where a protest against “parading legislation”, organised by Orange Order grand chaplain Mervyn Gibson, attracted just 40 people.

Stranger still, instead of blocking the road, they opted for a republican-style white line protest in sheepishly uncharacteristic fashion. “We want a fair and equitable body to oversee parades,” Gibson informed a BBC reporter.

Would this be the same Mervyn Gibson who helped design the DUP and Sinn Féin’s proposed replacement for the Parades Commission in 2010, only for the Orange Order to reject it? Why, yes it would!

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As anticipated, most of the benefit cuts in the Westminster budget fell on tax credits, which are not devolved and hence should not add to Stormont’s welfare reform woes.

However, the rest of the axe fell mainly on housing benefit, which is ultimately a benefit to landlords – and that creates an unexpected conundrum on the hill. In the latest register of members’ interests, 17 of Stormont’s 108 MLAs are listed as UK residential landlords. That does not include those whose immediate family members own undeclared rental property – a number that is unknown, but is known not to be zero.

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When a business goes wrong it will generally go bust but a dysfunctional public body needs to be put out of its misery. Sport NI is clearly a candidate for administrative euthanasia, with nine of its 14 board members resigning en masse, its £85,000-a-year chief executive mysteriously suspended since March and 10 per cent of its staff making formal complaints of mistreatment.

Staff numbers have also somehow doubled over the past five years while the grants they give out have halved. All the £17m-a-year quango really does is disburse £9m in grants, with the difference going on its own overheads.

Sport NI’s sponsoring Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) has now sent three civil servants in to take charge. Why can the 300 civil servants at DCAL headquarters not just hand out the grants?

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The extent of the PSNI’s neuralgia about flags has not been fully appreciated. Officers were ridiculed last week for blethering community-speak after a US confederate flag was put up outside a black family’s house in east Belfast, reportedly by one individual with no ‘organisation’ holding his ladder.

A local football coach had to remove the offending article instead. So keen is the PSNI to burnish its anti-racist credentials that all non-emergency callers to its switchboard are currently asked to press either ‘1’ to “report a crime or incident” or ‘2’ to “report a hate-crime or hate-incident”. Yet if option 2 involves a piece of cloth, the thin blue line is suddenly engaged.