Suzanne Breen: decision has "major implications"
Henry McDonald says Northern Ireland's journalists and politicians should welcome today's decision in favour of the Sunday Tribune journalist.
18 Jun 09

Suzanne Breen has won her right to withhold material from a police investigation in Northern Ireland after the court agreed with her that such action would be put her in the terrorist firing line.

Breen argued that not only was the hand over of such information a breach of journalistic confidentiality but it would also put her life in danger.

Today in Belfast’s Laganside Court the recorder, Mr Tom Burgess, concluded that the risk to her was “not just real and immediate” but also “continuing”.

Her legal team described his ruling as a landmark judgement in terms of press freedom in particular the protection of sources.

Joe Rice, a Belfast lawyer who has defended several reporters under similar pressure in Northern Ireland to disclose sources by the state and a number of public inquiries, said the significance of the judgment could not be underestimated.

Journalists operating in Northern Ireland are relieved that Suzanne Breen has won her case. The decision has major implications for other reporters here.

This not only includes correspondents who are under pressure from the state, principally the PSNI, but also from the range of public inquiries into a number of past crimes in the Troubles.

For instance, at least three correspondents have been subjected to the attempts by Blood Sunday Inquiry and the Billy Wright Inquiry to get them to hand over confidential material. When they refused, the legal teams acting for the inquiries have gone to court to force the journalists’ hand. At best, the reporters reluctant to reveal sources and confidential material to the inquiries face contempt of court charges.

The outcome of today’s case may have implications for them as well. And in addition for Ian Paisley Junior, the son of the Rev Ian Paisley, who is facing sanctions over his determination to protect sources. Paisley Junior will not disclose who leaked him details about the security regime inside the Maze prison at the time when Billy Wright, a loyalist killer, was murdered in the H-Blocks in December 1997. The DUP Assembly member, it should be remembered, is also trying to uphold the right of source protection and his case is as vital as the Breen case in terms of defending the free flow of information in a democracy. He goes to court on Monday week to find if his refusal to hand over sources and information to the Billy Wright Inquiry will either land him in jail or result in him paying a heavy fine.

Read the full judgment here