NI High Court dismisses Gerry Kelly defamation case with ‘hallmarks of a SLAPP’

NI High Court dismisses Gerry Kelly defamation case with 'hallmarks of a SLAPP'

Northern Ireland’s High Court has dismissed a “scandalous, frivolous and vexatious” defamation claim brought against Belfast journalist and author Malachi O’Doherty by Sinn Féin politician Gerry Kelly.

The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) welcomed yesterday’s decision as “extremely significant” in the context of discussions around so-called strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs).

Mr Kelly, represented by Ó Muirigh Solicitors, sued Dr O’Doherty, represented by Shean Dickson Merrick Solicitors, in relation to two 2019 radio interviews in which the writer said Mr Kelly had shot prison officer John Adams in the head during the 1983 Maze Prison escape.

Mr Kelly was acquitted of the shooting in a 1987 trial and has never admitted shooting Mr Adams, though he has written extensively about his leading role in the infamous escape.

The court examined the content of Mr Kelly’s books The Escape – The Inside Story of the 1983 Escape from Long Kesh Prison and Playing My Part.

In his 55-page ruling, Master Evan Bell said: “What Mr Kelly has written in his books is, in my view, a clear statement of common design in respect of the battery of Mr Adams.

“Even if one accepts the submission… that Mr Kelly has not explicitly admitted pulling the trigger, the content of his books appears to make Mr Kelly civilly liable, on the balance of probabilities, for the shooting of Mr Adams.

“In the 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.”

He also said the proceedings “bear the hallmarks 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”.

As a result, Dr O’Doherty was awarded both the costs of the application and the costs of the action on an indemnity basis.

Welcoming the ruling, Séamus Dooley, NUJ assistant general secretary, said: “This case had no realistic prospect of success. Since 2020 the shadow of defamation proceedings has loomed over Malachi O’Doherty and, in a separate action, over Ruth Dudley Edwards.

“Such threats have a chilling impact on journalists and journalism. The unambiguous language used in the determination should give those intent on using SLAPPs pause for thought.”

The NUJ has instructed counsel to assist in making a submission to the ongoing review of defamation law in Northern Ireland and is consulting members on the review, with reference to the impact of SLAPPs.

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