02/03/2014 Sunday Politics Northern Ireland


02/03/2014

The latest political news, interviews and debate in Northern Ireland.


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In the end, it was a case of crisis averted, but at one point this week

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the collapse of the Assembly looked like it might just happen - again.

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The political storm blew up in the wake of the collapse of the John

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Downey court case and the light the court judgement shed on secret

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letters issued to IRA 'on-the-runs'. As the blame game continues, where

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has this past turbulent week left the political process and the

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ongoing attempts to resolve our troubled past? Joining me now is the

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Justice Minister, David Ford. Thank you for joining us. First of all, a

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development today. Peter Hain wrote in the Sunday Telegraph and has

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called for the soldiers involved in the Bloody Sunday killings not to be

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prosecuted. Do you agree? It almost looks like playing a part

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in one pseudo- amnesty, he is now try to play a part in another. When

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the Attorney General suggested we should draw a line under the past it

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was almost universally rejected. There are difficulties with evidence

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when you go back that far but it does not mean we should abandon the

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opportunity if there is one in some cases. There is an anomaly in the

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system and does that not need to be addressed?

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The system is full of anomalies, mostly because of the way the

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British government was making side deals. That is the reality and we

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are living with those anomalies as people like we try to get the

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justice system to work properly today.

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You can understand why Unionists are pretty angry. How people potentially

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involved in violent crime are given a potentially "get out free card" as

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they describe it? But the fact that somebody was on

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duty in one case doesn't mean they did not commit a crime. That is the

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way very highest standards should be held for those who are responsible

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as agents of the state. We have to look at the practical realities as

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to what may not be possible without saying we draw a line and

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effectively grant an amnesty without an attempt to get justice where it

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is possible. What would your advice to Peter Hain be?

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I am not sure his advice is being particularly well received. Perhaps

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the best thing he could do is to give a full account of everything he

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did to the enquiry. In the Sunday Times, Peter Robinson

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accused Peter Hain of misleading Parliament over the on-the-run

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letters in 2006 and 2007, but Peter Hain refuted that. When you look at

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what he said in Hansard, it makes for interesting reading, doesn't it?

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Some of the remarks appeared to be less than the complete truth. He

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said that he said it had to be addressed. I think he needs to

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examine his precise background and perhaps that is something the judge

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will do in the coming months. You got clarity on Thursday night,

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Friday morning that there are five "live" OTR cases currently in the

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system for consideration. Should they be stopped, as the DUP has

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demanded? I simply don't have enough detail

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what the status of that is whether they can be stopped. I have a track

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-- asked for legal advice as to what the department can do. It is a

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really unclear position. You will have heard the Secretary of State

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saying it is a devolved issue, but it was never a devolved issue. The

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Northern Ireland Office continued and accepted a call from a senior

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official on Friday that they were still responsible for those five

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even though we are still four years into devolution.

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So as far as you are concerned, you are the justice minister but these

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five cases have not been devolved to you?

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I have made it clear that I want no part in Peterhead and's shabby

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scheme. -- in Peter Hain's shabby scheme. It is unclear as to quote --

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whether there was any right for The Northern Ireland Office to continue

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to pursue them after devolution. It looks like being scheme is

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continuing, doesn't it? It appears to pay but whether it is

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legally the case is something on which I am seeking advice.

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Presumably being plucked -- the enquiry will clarify some of this,

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do you think? It is not expected to report until

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the end of May. We know something about the broad terms of reference

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but there are frequently differences as to how they are interpreted. If a

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judge wants to get into the full details of the case we will have a

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better chance. The select committee in Westminster may well be looking

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at the detail if they don't think a judge lead enquiry has gone far

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enough. The most senior... It turns out that

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the most senior civil servant in your department, Nick Perry, knew

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about what you've called "this shabby, back door deal" all along.

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You did not! I don't know how much Nick knew. The

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civil service code makes it clear that civil servants serve the

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minister who leads the department they are in. The day they move

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departments they have allegiance to a different minister. And that is

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how it should be. It is the principle of a nonpolitical civil

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service working in the interests of the ministers who are there by the

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political process. I would be annoyed if people who moved from the

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Department of Justice were telling what went on in that department. You

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might think I would have wished to know from Nick Perry, but there are

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much wider implications and his behaviour has been proper. No one is

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suggesting anything to the contrary but people might be wondering that

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it is not a good example of joined up government?

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Files have markers put in them when governments changed and when

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ministers changed saying, the information below this is not to be

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revealed to the new ministers and there are lots of complications

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around that. What other wider political

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implications, do you think? Night -- Mike Nesbitt declared that as far as

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he is concerned, the Haass talks are dead in the water and he is taking

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no part. Is that your position? No, that was a foolish thing for him

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to say. It doesn't matter what emerges from however many

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enquiries, five parties have the responsibility for leading the

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executive. Collectively, we have the responsibility to build a better

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shared future for Northern Ireland and to ensure we put the past behind

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us in a way which deals with it honestly and comprehensively and we

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can provide something for which I children and grandchildren can be

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proud. If we say, I wash my hands of it, we will not get anywhere.

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But this situation of the past 72 hours has fatally wounded that

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process, has it not? Maybe the four of us will have to

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carry on without him. Fundamentally, the people of

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Northern Ireland, through their elected representatives, have to

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solve the problems whatever else is happening.

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Do you think the DUP will stay in the process? I think they have

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distanced themselves from Mike Nesbitt. I am not sure he wants to

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be relevant, but certainly I want the Alliance party to be relevant

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and I will continue to do a good job in Justice. Those are the key things

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for Northern Ireland, moving forward and not falling out over the past in

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a way which stops us moving forward together.

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Thank you. Let's hear from our guests now, the commentator Newton

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Emerson and Dr Cathy Gormley-Heenan from the University of Ulster. Hard

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to know where to start, isn't it? Let us talk about Peter Hain and the

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issue of whether or not soldiers involved in Bloody Sunday should be

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prosecuted. You can understand it will create another political

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altercation? Yes, there is no reason why Bloody

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Sunday should be treated any differently to any other

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atrocities. The Unionist position is that special treatment shouldn't be

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given to the victims so why should it be given to the perpetrators. It

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is an attempt to create another de facto amnesty. The object of letting

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off the soldiers is that nothing could be prosecuted from 40 years

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ago. Why would that be the case? We are prosecuting radio celebrities

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from 40 years ago so are you saying a multiple murder is less serious?

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It is revealing of a new agenda to have a de facto amnesty but that is

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not legally or politically possible. It is hard for people to pick their

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way through the minefield of this latest row. You have Peter Hain

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saying that all of this was in the public domain and people should have

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known about it and looked at what was being said in Westminster and

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Stormont. Then Peter Robinson says today in the Sunday Times and

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quoting answers Peter Hain gave that he says were less than open and

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honest. How do you get at the facts? Hopefully, that is what the enquiry

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will attempt to do. I have read about the on-the-run letters years

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ago in a law journal. People interested in the peace process

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probably did have a sense that something was happening. It is like

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many things in Northern Ireland, it flares up at a particular point.

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This past week, the issue has been more than anything that there needs

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to be a renewed impetus on a process with which we deal with the past. We

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have been dealing in with it since 1998 but in a piecemeal way. Maybe a

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bit too pragmatic and approach. Briefly, Peter Robinson made it

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clear he would resign if he did not get a satisfactory result --

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response from the government. He said he got the response he was

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looking for and his demands were met, where they?

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I genuinely believe he was ready to resign, but not to bring down the

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executive. He wanted to reassert his mandate. That is why his credit --

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threat was read -- credible. I genuinely think he would have hit

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the button for an election. Not to bring it down. Briefly, what about

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Haass? Is it dead in the water? Mike Nesbitt thinks it is but it is an

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opportunity to decouple some issues. The flags and parades were to

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difficult to include as a composite block. It is an opportunity to

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decouple those things and it is a new way to deal with the past.

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Thank you, both. Now, let's pause for a moment as Conor Macauley takes

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a look back at a turbulent week in local politics in 60 Seconds.

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The stormy weather makes life tough for fishermen and they appealed to

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Stormont for help. We have had to rely on charities based in England

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to come and help us says something about our politicians and the

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executive. A different type of storm is brewing

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on the hill as the case against the man accused of the Hyde Park bombing

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collapsed. John Downey is one of several on-the-run buts who were

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told they were not being sought by police. Peter Robinson threatened to

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resign when he hand -- heard. I am not prepared to be the head of

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a government kept in the dark. The deputy called for calm claiming

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others did know. We were the only people who knew

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about this. David Cameron wants to know more and

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appointed a judge to lead a review. I agree with Peter Robinson that it

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is right to get to the bottom of what happened.

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Conor Macauley reporting. An attempt in the House of Lords to extend

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libel laws to Northern Ireland was last week withdrawn after a

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government minister warned that the Stormont executive must have primacy

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on the issue. When the Defamation Act wrote about first major changes

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to the UK libel laws since the 19th century, Sammy Wilson halted its

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extension here. Joining me now to discuss this is Lord Bew, who is

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part of that attempt in the Lords to extend reform here, and the lawyer

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Paul Tweed who's opposed. Why was the attempt made at

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Westminster? When you get a Northern Ireland

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provisions Bill going through the house, and it is a rare advent, it

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is inevitable people will make the attempt. There is a lot of feeling

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in the House of Lords on this issue, there is an attempt to have a debate

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about it at least. The truth is, the matter is now over. The Minister

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made it clear for a number of reasons that they will not intervene

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and it is now a matter for the assembly. A report will be set up

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from the Law Commission with a distinguished academic to work on

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it. That is where the debate and focus now is. It was worth airing

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last week again at Westminster and that concerns exist about freedom of

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expression here. It is now at a weaker level than the rest of the

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UK. What is your basic concern?

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The fundamental concern for me personally as an academic, there is

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an issue about academic freedom and what academics can save. It is also

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about political and historical matters. This bill extends academic

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freedom. It defends the idea of a public interest defence for the

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media as a whole. If we are going to deal with the past, particularly

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here, one has to have the freest possible discussion and there really

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isn't any question that historically the courts have been used to limit

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in some way of the amount of freedom... As far as all parties are

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concerned in London, it is supposed to be the correct context for public

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debate. The absence of this legislation curtails free and open

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discussion, critically about the key issue of past?

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In my opinion, it was outrageous that these peers attempted to impose

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legislation Northern Ireland which, I should say, has been rejected by

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Scotland. The Republic of Ireland's laws are broadly similar to our own

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as they currently stand so there is no need for change whatsoever. As

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far as our libel laws are concerned, there are plenty of

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safety mechanisms built in. I act for both plaintiffs and newspapers

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and just before Christmas I acted for a national newspaper in

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defending a case of so-called" is libel tourism" . We successfully did

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that. So the law as it currently stands is effective. My big concern

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is access to justice for the ordinary man on the street. We talk

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about academics and scientists and I'd sample size with those views. If

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he feels there is a genuine threat -- I sympathise with those views. I

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would be happy to countenance specific change in the law but not a

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whole scale introduction of an owner is law that completely makes it

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impossible for the ordinary person to take legal proceedings here in

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Northern Ireland. Finally, a key change is the removal of the jury

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is. I sat on all the Ministry of Justice panels in London when they

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debated the English change to the law and I did not get one argument

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that convinced me that juries were not doing a good job. It is very

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significant that the one thing the press are worried about here are

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their readers, the general public, deciding whether they have performed

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properly and fairly in terms of their reporting.

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You, as a libel lawyer, may find yourself very busy if the status quo

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is main stained -- maintained. There will not be a rush of

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oligarchs coming to Northern Ireland, believe me. I work from

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London, Dublin and Belfast and less than 5% of my work takes place in

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Belfast. I don't mind. I will work within the law and what the law

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gives to me but I cannot get justice for the general public where they

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have no access to legal aid. We have always been treated differently in

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Northern Ireland. We cannot recover insurance premiums so we have always

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been treated differently. How do you respond? He can

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understand your specific and concern about academics but what about

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members of the public? He feels he represents their best interests and

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an extension of this legislation would not serve them?

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The whole problem with libel law is the conflict between the need to

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have an -- a right to defend your reputation and the freedom of

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debate. After a long process of examination we have come up with a

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new position in Westminster. If you say the Republic of Ireland is

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different, that is right. We see massive scandals in the Republic of

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Ireland and there was not one serious article in the press

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anticipating anything leading up to the whole area of the collapse of

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the economy and bankers and so on. Does this tell you you had the

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requisite level of freedoms of discussion here? It is true that

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Scotland is different but it has its own tradition of law which is

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elaborate. We have had UK law here essentially. You are not asking our

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judiciary to operate on an old second-hand car. The media in London

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will be operating according to the new model and it creates a number of

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anomalies and difficulties for the judiciary here in Belfast.

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We are not the same as Scotland, what about that point, nor the legal

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system -- system in the Republic of Ireland. Our law is broadly similar

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to Scotland and Ireland. Putting this in perspective, the number of

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libel actions that have come before the courts in Belfast over the last

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30 years are probably to every decade at Oaks. A survey was carried

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out in England about the so-called libel tourism -- every decade at

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most. This is a non-issue. A non-problem. The press are sensitive

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about it to protect their financial issue -- interests but it is not an

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issue. Thank you both for joining us.

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Newton says it is not an issue. I am fed up defending libel reform

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because everyone thinks it is about journalists. The Defamation Act is

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about protecting academics and scientists. I follow alarming cases

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where scientists were pursued because companies didn't like the

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results. There are thousands of jobs like that in Northern Ireland in a

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university and Major Forbes -- firms. It will only take one of

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these ridiculous cases to make as an international pariah and a similar

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risk applies to IT. Those industries need to get off the face -- fence

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and defend their interests because the media cannot do it alone.

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Mike Nesbitt's billows out for consultation. We know that it is a

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big responsibility on our show ministers shoulders? They should

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take his day from the deliberations in the house of Lords because they

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have much experience in the reading of these bills. We have no formal

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opposition or an effective opposition, the media plays that

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role and anything that Nowadays we take the issue of

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fairness in employment for granted. I have never felt it important

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to ask anybody's religion when I'm going to employ them

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as a sheet metal worker. This is the story of fair

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employment in Northern Ireland. it masked a much greater problem

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in terms of educational disadvantage. The Fair Employment Act of 1989

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changed Northern Ireland's society dramatically.

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We still have a way to go. But are we on the right track?

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Absolutely. What does Austria want?

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I mean, what does she want?

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