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SF MLA’s libel case against journalist thrown out

A senior Sinn Féin politician has had his libel case against a journalist thrown out for being “scandalous, frivolous and vexatious”.

A judge ruled that the action by Gerry Kelly MLA against broadcaster and writer Malachi O’Doherty had all the characteristics of a so-called SLAPP case.

A similar action against journalist and academic Ruth Dudley Edwards is outstanding.

She is also seeking to have the action against her struck out.

SLAPP, or Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, are cases taken to silence critics by threatening them with the prospect of hefty legal bills.

The court ruled that Mr Kelly’s action had no merit and awarded costs to Mr O’Doherty.

The case turned on comments made by Mr O’Doherty in the course of two media interviews on 21 August 2019.

In the course of them he referenced Mr Kelly’s leadership role in the 1981 Maze Prison escape and the allegation that in the course of the breakout he had shot a prison officer John Adams in the head, seriously wounding him.

Mr Kelly issued a writ claiming damages for libel.

The Sinn Fein politician has written and spoken extensively about his involvement in the escape, his possession of a handgun and his threat to shoot a prison officer.

But he had been acquitted on a charge of shooting Mr Adams in a 1987 criminal trial.

In his ruling published today, Master Evan Bell said the burden of proof in a civil case was less than in a criminal one.

He said the content of several books Mr Kelly had written about his role in the escape appeared to make him “civilly liable, on the balance of probabilities, for the shooting of Mr Adams.”

“In light of that these defamation proceedings against Dr O’Doherty are completely untenable.

“For that reason, the court strikes them out on the basis that they are scandalous, frivolous and vexatious.”.

Counsel for Malachi O’Doherty claimed Mr Kelly had chosen to sue her client personally, rather than the BBC, which had aired one of the interviews, because Mr O’Doherty was an outspoken critic of Sinn Féin and the intention was to intimidate him with the threat of legal costs.

The court heard that other journalists had made similar allegations around Mr Kelly’s actions on the day of the escape, but he had only singled out Mr O’Doherty and Ms Edwards for action.

Master Bell said it was difficult to understand why proceedings had been issued against Mr O’Doherty and Ms Edwards after what Mr Kelly had written in his book The Escape.

He said he had also seen nothing to explain why the two individuals were sued, but not the broadcasters or newspapers who had carried their comments.

“On the balance of probabilities therefore the proceedings do bear the hallmark of a SLAPP and have been initiated not for the genuine purposes of vindicating a reputation injured by defamatory statements, but rather for the purpose of stifling the voices of his troublesome critics.”

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