Costly Speech

In matters of branches of the state launching an assault on the protection of sources providing information which helps enhance public understanding in Northern Ireland much recent media attention has focussed on the case of journalist Suzanne Breen. The Northern editor of the Sunday Tribune two weeks ago won a landmark decision in the courts against a police force determined to gain access to information it had no right to obtain.

Of equal importance to the protection of sources and free inquiry is the case of another figure in public life. This time the person concerned is a politician rather than a journalist, Ian Paisley Jnr of the Democratic Unionist Party, a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

It is more normal for politicians to call for censorship, seeking information buried rather than see it brought to the public fore. Indeed it was Ian Paisley Jnr’s Assembly colleague, Martin McGuinness, who vented spleen against ‘dissident journalists’ in the days preceding the PSNI move against Suzanne Breen.

However, on this occasion we find in the person of Paisley Jnr a politician who has not only brought serious information into the public domain but has defied the threat of prison in order to protect the source of that information, a prison officer who informed him of a file destruction policy implemented by prison staff in the wake of the Billy Wright killing in 1997. Wright was a feared loyalist militia leader shot dead in the Maze Prison by the INLA.

The controversial killing led to an official inquiry being set up. Its chair ordered Paisley Jnr to reveal the identity of the prison officer who had yielded the information about the files to him. The Assembly member refused and in court at the start of this week was fined £5000. As the imprisonment of a high profile politician on such a sensitive matter would be a grave political embarrassment Lord Justice Gillen, rather than hold the threat of jail over Paisley Jnr in the event of his refusal to cough up the money, has ordered the seizure of the equivalent amount in assets at the end of a three month period if there is no compliance.

In his ruling that the senior DUP member had acted in contempt of court Judge Gillen said "it is a recipe for legal anarchy for individuals to pick and choose with impunity those laws they will obey and those they will defy." Here we see the state moving to claw back ground ceded in the Breen case. It is clearly uncomfortable with the concept of source protection.

In this matter Ian Paisley Jnr’s political persuasion is of no consequence. He is guilty of nothing other than performing a valuable public service by ensuring that the public has access to information that many in officialdom would rather be kept hidden. Anti-censorship activists should keep this in mind when people other than journalists are subject to state coercion designed to uncover sources. Journalists themselves should find common cause with politicians who take a stand against the state on this matter.

Ian Paisley Junior should not be left to battle this case on his own. The costs of his legal defence alone work out at around £50,000. The cumulative effect of fine and costs amounts to a state attempt to price the protection of sources out of the information market. As the man in dock put it while vowing to protect his source to the grave: 'I think it's a very rare commodity in the world today that someone in public life is prepared to keep their word.'

Indeed. Not often do we see it. The price of keeping it for Ian Paisley Jnr is tens of thousands of pounds.


  1. Very interesting post, this is a clear warning to those who see politics in purely black and white terms.

    Surely the public interest argument would surmise here, as clearly not only the information Paisley Jrn helped to bring to light was in the public interest, but so is keeping his informants name confidential, for were he to name this person, it would without doubt discourage others from passing on similar info in the future.

  2. Mick, unfortunately, it would seem that some would rather see IPJ jailed than have the issue on which he has made his stand promoted and defended.

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