Belfast court rejects Sinn Féin libel case against journalist, deeming it ‘meritless’

A Belfast court has dismissed a libel case filed by Gerry Kelly, a prominent Sinn Féin member who was accused of being the shooter in a 1983 prison escape. This ruling deals a fresh blow to the party’s multiple lawsuits against the media.

The high court’s Master Evan Bell called Kelly’s case against journalist and commentator Malachi O’Doherty “scandalous, frivolous, and vexatious” and struck out the action. In a 55-page ruling, the judge stated that the attempt to sue O’Doherty personally was “completely untenable” and an abuse of the law to silence a critic. The judge also emphasized that it would be unfair for the proceedings to continue.

This ruling follows two other recent unsuccessful attempts by Sinn Féin members to sue a politician in Northern Ireland and a newspaper in Ireland.

Press freedom groups accuse the party of utilizing strategic lawsuits against public participation (Slapps), which are intended to harass and silence critics. However, Sinn Féin denies these allegations.

Gerry Kelly, aged 70, is a member of the Stormont assembly who was convicted of planting IRA car bombs in London in 1973. In 1983, he was part of a group of 38 IRA prisoners who escaped from the Maze prison, during which a guard named John Adams was shot in the head.

Adams, who survived, identified Kelly as the gunman. Kelly never admitted to it and was found not guilty in a trial in 1987. He has authored books about the prison break that conceal the identity of the shooter.

In two radio interviews in 2019, Malachi O’Doherty, an author and commentator for the Belfast Telegraph, identified Kelly as the gunman. A year later, Kelly filed a defamation lawsuit.

The judge asserted that a reasonable person would conclude that someone who bombed central London had “lost their moral compass” and placed little value on human life.

Regarding the 1987 acquittal, the judge stated that criminal proceedings require a higher standard of proof than civil proceedings.

“Based on what Mr. Kelly has written in his books, it is, in my view, extremely difficult, if not impossible, for him to refute the argument that he was not involved in the battery,” the judge added.

Bell also mentioned that while politicians have the right to protect their reputation, they should exercise restraint when suing journalists in the interest of political speech and democracy. He concluded that Kelly’s case constituted a Slapp and awarded O’Doherty both the application costs and the action costs on an indemnity basis.

The Irish government and press freedom organizations have repeatedly accused Sinn Féin of attempting to suppress legitimate scrutiny. However, the party rejects these claims. It is believed that party members have at least eight ongoing cases against media outlets, along with additional cases against political adversaries.

Michelle O’Neill, the deputy leader of the party, won a libel case against Democratic Unionist party councillor John Carson. However, she did not receive any compensation as the Belfast court ruled that Carson’s remark, although offensive and misogynistic, did not harm her reputation.

In December, a Dublin high court dismissed a defamation lawsuit against the Sunday Life, the sister publication of the Belfast Telegraph. The case was brought by Liam Lappin, a constituency organizer, who claimed he was defamed in relation to a photograph of him and 13 others at a Sinn Féin Christmas party.

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