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January 3, 2013

Sinn Fein considers appeal over £80,000 libel payout for ‘malicious’ press release

By PA Media Lawyer

Sinn Fein is considering appealing over a High Court libel case in which it was ordered to pay £80,000 in damages to former Northern Ireland Water non-executive director Declan Gormley.
Gormley was awarded the damages on 17 December, following a three-week trial at the High Court in Belfast.
He had sued Sinn Fein for defamation over two separate press releases it issued in 2011 after he was sacked from the board of NI Water.
The party had denied the press releases were defamatory, but a jury found that it had acted with malice.
The Belfast Telegraph and the BBC reported that the trial judge, Mr Justice Gillen, had rejected the party's defence of qualified privilege for journalism in the public interest, ruling that no steps were taken to verify the content of the press releases before they were issued by the party.
Gormley and three other non-executive directors were sacked from NI Water in March 2010 by former Sinn Fein Regional Development Minister Conor Murphy after an independent review team investigation into the awarding of contracts.
But a subsequent report into procurement and performance at the company produced by the Stormont Public Accounts Committee was said to have criticised the earlier inquiry and questioned its independence.
Gormley, who has denied any wrongdoing, sued Sinn Fein and two of its representatives, MLA Cathal Boylan and former Assemblyman Willie Clarke, over the press releases.
Sinn Fein denied that the press releases were defamatory, and argued that they were protected by qualified privilege, as they were responding to a campaign of attacks on Murphy mounted by the SDLP with Gormley's collusion.
But a jury of five men and one woman decided that both releases were defamatory, and that the defendants were malicious.
Although Sinn Fein argued that it should pay only modest damages, Gormley's barrister, David Dunlop, told the jury that the party had issued the press releases to some 200 news outlets in the hope of gaining widespread publicity.
The damages were for the distress Gormley had suffered, and to repair the harm to his reputation, he said.
Sinn Fein had not apologised, but instead had followed a line of "bull-headed, unreasonable and unjustified persistence in maintaining the party line" during the trial.
The Irish Times said that after the damages were awarded, Gormley said outside the High Court in Belfast that the case was never about the money.
"I'm absolutely delighted, but I think it's more important to point out that this completes the utter vindication of my position," the newspaper quoted him as saying.
"What happened to me was wrong, a jury of ordinary men and women have decided it was wrong and have awarded accordingly.
"It's never been about the money, it's always been about vindicating my reputation and good name."

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