Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) PROTECTING NORTH FROM PROGRESS

Posted By: May 08, 2013


Irish News.

Wednesday, May 8,2013AS YOU would expect, our benighted, backward-looking assembly is no friend of free speech particularly when it comes to criticising assembly members. As Lance-Corporal Jones in Dad’s Army used to say, “They don’t like it up ’em”. Not only do they have pretty unlimited privilege to defame you in Stormont but you pay for insurance that indemnifies them if they defame you outside Stormont and that seems to be an unlimited indemnity. Now you’re about to pay the six-figure sum Paul Givan cost the insurance for shooting his mouth off on TV.

On the other hand MLAs have blocked attempts to make it more difficult for them to sue anyone who demonstrates what asses they are. They are refusing to allow the provisions of the Defamation Act 2013 to apply to the north. There was unionist uproar a couple of months ago when Sinn Fein blocked the newly created National Crime Agency (NCA), a British FBI, from operating in the north. Unionists wailed that this is part of the UK so all provisions for Britain must apply here.

Yeah right. Except when unionists decide they shouldn’t. Last year Sammy Wilson’s department, which is unfortunately responsible for stuff such as the Defamation Act, mysteriously removed a paper on the bill his department had presented for the executive. It never reached the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) for consideration. No-one knows why it was withdrawn. We do know individuals in the DUP are unhappy with aspects of the bill, which make it more difficult to sue someone for libel.

The new Defamation Act requires a person to show that ‘serious harm has been done to their reputation’. You could see how that provision might exclude a fair number of DUP members over the years from suing anyone. How many DUP members can you think of who have no reputation to lose? Still, we don’t know if that’s the reason for blocking the process of extending the bill to the north.

That’s only one aspect of the bill. Other provisions include a public interest defence, which will allow investigative reporting if the information published is in the public interest even if it is damaging to an individual.

Hmm. Any skeletons in DUP cupboards?

The finger points at the DUP since no other party has expressed opposition to the bill being extended here. However there are important questions. Needless to say the only person asking them is the assembly’s one-man opposition, Jim Allister. He wants to know why the paper was withdrawn last year. He has written to Stormont’s chairman of the relevant committee, Daithi McKay, to ask. Perhaps Mr Allister should also ask why no-one in Sinn Fein said a dickey-bird as the date for extending the bill over here slowly slipped past. What about McKay’s own committee for example? It’s not as if the progress of the bill through Westminster was a secret. The DUP opposed it there.

Maybe it suits Sinn Fein not to have the provisions of a British bill extended here just like the NCA?

Maybe it suits Sinn Fein to oppose free speech just as resolutely as the DUP but even better if the DUP does it for them? Who knows what goes on in OFMDFM or when DUP and Sinn Fein special advisers foregather behind closed doors?

What we do know is that this place is going to be confirmed as a foetid backwater for freedom of expression as it is for every other standard of modern democracy.

The Defamation Act isn’t just about criticising politicians. It makes it easier to expose fraudulent scientific and medical claims that mislead people into spending a fortune buying snake oil. It attempts to make sense of the blogosphere and social media such as tweeting and Facebook, which has fallen foul of archaic libel laws devised before cyberspace existed.

How appropriate then that the DUP should hold the north back from such developments, protecting its members and their ludicrous ideology from anything that was invented after 1690. Of course it’s entirely consistent that a party noted for its repressive opposition to modernity should seek to hold back progress.

What is deeply disappointing is that Sinn Fein, which masquerades as a radical progressive modern party, has done nothing to stop them.