Northern Ireland's courts show contempt for free speech
Padraig Reidy: Northern Ireland's courts show contempt for free speech
28 Mar 12

News that Peter Hain MP may face contempt of court charges in Northern Ireland is disturbing, but sadly not especially surprising.

Post-GFA Northern Ireland does not have a notably good record on free speech and privacy. Journalists such as Suzanne Breen and Henry McDonald have been put under pressure to reveal their sources, and MP Ian Paisley Junior has faced contempt charges after refusing to divulge confidential correspondence with a constituent.

Hain is facing prosecution under common law contempt charges for, essentially, being rude about a judge. In his memoir published earlier this year, the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and Wales described Lord Justice Girvan as acting as if he was “off his rocker” in a 2006 ruling.

The Attorney General of Northern Ireland is now pursuing Hain and his publisher Biteback publishing (run by Iain Dale) for contempt, claiming Hain’s comments “constitute unwarranted abuse of a judge in his judicial capacity that undermines the administration of justice in this jurisdiction, and consequently constitute a contempt of court” .

Essentially the suggestion is that we should not criticise judges, lest we shatter the faith of the wider community in the courts. Leave aside the obvious fact that Northern Ireland’s courts are not exactly seen as citadels of justice by many people in the country, and we’re still left with the notion that a branch of the state should be beyond criticism. This is a dangerous idea, and an absurd move by the Attorney General. No matter what your political allegiance, it is vital that Hain and Dail are supported.

By Padraig Reidy

Padraig Reidy is the editor of Little Atoms and a columnist for Index on Censorship. He has also written for The Observer, The Guardian, and The Irish Times.