Sinn Fein MLA facing huge court bill after Twitter libel

Phil Flanagan leaves the court. ' 'Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
Phil Flanagan leaves the court. ' 'Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye

A Sinn Fein MLA has admitted that he seriously libelled an Ulster Unionist MP by wrongly claiming that he had shot people – and now the Sinn Fein man potentially faces an enormous legal bill.

Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLA Phil Flanagan made the comments online via Twitter on May 1, 2014, in relation to former Ulster Unionist leader Tom Elliott.

The tweet only stayed up for one hour before the MLA deleted it and it was seen by just 167 people – but Mr Flanagan now faces a huge bill for his comment.

On Friday, the matter was heard at the High Court in Belfast.

The defamatory tweet, which was read out in court said: “Tom Elliott speaks to Stephen Nolan about the past. I wonder if he will reveal how many people he harassed or shot as a member of the UDR.”

It was made clear in court that Mr Elliott, who served in the UDR and then the Royal Irish Regiment from 1982 to 1999, had an entirely clean disciplinary record and Mr Flanagan never attempted to offer any evidence against him in court.

Fulfilling an undertaking given in court, Mr Flanagan last night tweeted a public apology to Mr Elliott and retracted his false allegations.

The judge, Mr Justice Stephens, reserved judgment on the level of damages.

Even if he only awards a small level of compensation – and the damages could be substantial, given the seriousness of the false allegation – Mr Flanagan’s legal bill could to run into tens of thousands of pounds involving both this case and his case against the Assembly’s insurers.

The later issue relates to a revelation in court yesterday which is the subject of separate legal proceedings.

It emerged in court that Mr Flanagan – who was deselected by Sinn Fein last month and so will end his term as an MLA in May – had hoped to avail of taxpayer-funded insurance which indemnifies MLAs from actions arising from defamatory comments which they make.

However, the insurer has refused (for reasons which were not made clear in court) to pay for his case.

Mr Flanagan is now suing the insurer in a separate case which comes to court later this month. As things stand, he will have to pay compensation to Mr Elliott, plus legal costs for both sides of the action.

The Assembly said that due to the complexity of the matter it could not answer questions about the issue until the start of next week. However, one factor may be whether he was judged to have been acting in his capacity as an MLA when he posted the message.

In October 2013 Mr Flanagan – who at the time was under pressure over a crude tweet about the Royal family – told the Assembly’s standards commissioner that “this was his own personal account”.

At that point, he was arguing that he was not acting as a Sinn Fein MLA when tweeting, and the commissioner agreed with him, deciding that he therefore couldn’t censure him over his actions on that occasion.

The court was told that the day after the initial tweet, Mr Elliott, who is now the MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, immediately got his solicitor to write to Mr Flanagan and then began legal proceedings.

After a delay, Mr Flanagan eventually admitted that the allegation had been “wholly without foundation” and “untrue”. He agreed to pay compensation to be arranged by the parties, and to apologise,

However, although Mr Elliott replied the following month that he was satisfied with that, no apology was made, seemingly due to Mr Flanagan’s realisation that he was no longer going to be insured.

Both Mr Elliott and Mr Flanagan were in court yesterday and Mr Elliott gave evidence that he believed the tweet endangered his life by making him more of a target for dissident republicans.

Mr Flanagan’s barrister confirmed that he would not be calling his client to offer any evidence in his own defence and agreed that Mr Flanagan’s statement had been “clearly defamatory”.

A previous libel by Sinn Fein, where the party defamed former Northern Ireland Water director Declan Gormley by untrue allegations about his financial conduct, saw the party having to pay £80,000 in compensation, as well as a far bigger legal bill.

However, unlike that case which went to trial with Sinn Fein denying that its statements had been defamatory, in this case Mr Flanagan accepted that what he had done was wrong, meaning that the judge is likely to give him a significant discount on the bill he otherwise would have faced.

Yesterday’s hearing was told that typically such discounts can be in the range of 33 to 50 per cent of what would ordinarily have been awarded against him.

Mr Flanagan’s barrister, Desmond Fahy, argued that because of his client’s efforts to make amends the judge should heavily discount the level of damages which he decides to award.

But Mr Elliott’s barrister, David Dunlop, argued: “The defendant had every opportunity from May 1, 2014 until January 8, 2016 to tweet that what he said was untrue and wholly without foundation and to apologise to the plaintiff, but he hasn’t done so and he has called no evidence to explain why he hasn’t done so.”

Speaking outside the court, Mr Elliott said: “I have been totally vindicated and Phil Flanagan has admitted that the comments he made were totally untrue...

“This could have been resolved 19 months ago, but unfortunately I was forced to go down this route.””