Northern Ireland's courts show contempt for free speech

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.

Breen: "I believe the PSNI has actually increased the potential threat to me"

Suzanne Breen gave evidence in the witness box today (11 June) and defended her decision to refuse to co-operate with the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) investigation into the murder of two British soldiers in Northern Ireland.

Breen told Belfast High Court that the Real IRA was “more than capable” of killing her, her 14-year-old daughter and her partner if she passed on relevant information to the PSNI. The police want Breen to hand over interview notes and other material to detectives in charge of the inquiry into the Real IRA murder of the squaddies in March this year.

Her defence goes to the heart of press freedom in the UK. Breen is defiant principally because of the need to protect journalistic sources, albeit sources involved or connected with terrorism.
The wider media community are so concerned about the implications of the PSNI winning this case that several high profile journalists were in court today. They included John Ware of the BBC’s Panorama, Channel 4 News’ Chief Correspondent Alex Thompson and media commentator Roy Greenslade.

Breen came under sustained questioning by the Crown, who wanted to know if she had taken any extra security precautions at her home, had changed her routine or had spoken to the police about security measures. The line of questioning became Kafkaesque because, as Breen pointed out repeatedly, she will only be under a Real IRA death threat if she retreats from her current position and hands over her material. Which is something the Sunday Tribune correspondent insists she will not do.

Apart from giving a robust defence for the need for journalists to protect their sources, Breen stuck to her line that co-operation with the PSNI would put her and her family in the firing line. She said she was not prepared “to place my life at risk and that of my child and my partner”.

When asked if she was prepared to go into a witness protection-style scheme, Breen said: “Northern Ireland is a small place and republican organisations can find out information about anyone.”

Breen added that by publicly taking the case against her in the High Court “I believe the PSNI has actually increased the potential threat to me”.

Henry McDonald is Ireland correspondent for the Guardian and Observer. His most recent book is Gunsmoke And Mirrors: How Sinn Féin Dressed Up Defeat As Victory