It was six years ago this week. “There’s a letter from the Attorney General of Northern Ireland for you,” said my assistant, Grant Tucker. “Apparently he wants to send you and Peter Hain to The Maze”. And so it began.
Six months of legal wrangling that ended up with the Government promising to change the law and Peter Hain and I left with a hefty legal bill, some of which, but not all was covered by my company’s libel insurance. It was all because of some perfectly innocent views Peter Hain had expessed in his memoir, ‘Outside In’, which my company Biteback had published in August 2012.
The offence Hain and I, as his publisher, were accused of was “scandalising the court” and undermining confidence in the judicial administration of Northern Ireland. He had had the temerity to criticise the judge who had found against him in a judicial review of his appointment of Bertha McDougall to the role of Commissioner for the families of victims of the troubles. The story took up three pages of his memoirs. The criticism was trenchant but fair. The Attorney General of Northern Ireland, John Larkin, thought otherwise.
Was he really saying that any criticism of a judge could bring the whole Northern Ireland judicial system into disrepute? Was the Northern Ireland judicial system really that weak that it couldn’t bear a little criticism? So it seemed.
I was incredulous and felt I had somehow been caught up in some weird judicial fantasy. But the Attorney General was serious and wasn’t for shifting. His clear implication was that any criticism of a Judge could result in a massive fine or even worse.
My view was clear. Either you believe in freedom of speech, or you don’t. And if you do, you don’t give in to legal bullies, which is what the Attorney General rapidly proved himself to be. Well he had met his match.
We then found out that the offence of ‘scandalising a court’ hadn’t actually been used for nearly a century and according to legal textbooks had fallen into disuse. What a pity the Attorney General seemed unaware of this.
We tried to resolve the case behind the scenes, but Mr Larkin was having none of it. He was on a mission, and the mission was to have his day in court.
At that point, we and our libel insurers had to make a decision – cave in or fight it to be bitter end. We decided on the latter course of action and Mr Larkin rapidly came to realise he had bitten off more than he could chew.
Subtle and behind the scenes approaches to the AG to see sense failed, so we decided to start a media and political campaign exposing the Attorney General’s outrageous threats and to bring to the attention of the public both in Northern Ireland and more widely his attempt to silence a former Cabinet Minister and his publisher.
I remember receiving a call from his office and I told them in no uncertain terms that unless they withdrew their action, I would get it raised on the floor of the House of Commons. “That’s a promise and a threat,” I remember saying. And then putting the phone down.
So I did just that. I got an MP to ask a question at PMQs and David Cameron appeared to give us his support. More than 150 MPs from all parties signed a Commons motion condemning the Attorney’s action. Countless opinion and comment pieces started appearing in most national newspapers. Questions were asked in the Northern Ireland Assembly.
The objective was to put massive pressure on Mr Larkin and make him feel ‘got at’. I think it is safe to say that we achieved our aim, to the extent that many politicians and commentators in Northern Ireland started to question whether Mr Larkin would be reappointed to his office when his two year term expired. Sadly he was. And he’s still there.
And then another phone call came. And it came from someone within Larkin’s office, asking if there was any way we would compromise. By this time a court date had been set for mid June. They said that if we paid his costs, and apologised, the Attorney might be willing to drop the case. Oh how we laughed.
We were as confident as we could be in winning the case, even if we had to take it to the Supreme Court to do so. Astonishingly it did get to an initial court hearing in the Northern Ireland High Court (pic above), but it was clear from the initial skirmishes in that arena that the Attorney General was heading for a fall.
However, in the end we decided to call it quits as our insurers would have incurred extra costs and our own insurance premium would have skyrocketed. So we agreed to a deal where we each paid our costs and Peter Hain would add a clarification to the paperback version of the book.
There was no apology, no backdown on our part, although we knew that’s how Mr Larkin would seek to paint it. And he did.
Peter Hain and I have repeatedly said at all times that we did not intend to, and do not believe we did, undermine the administration of justice in Northern Ireland. It was only after months of costs and public pressure to back down that the Attorney General did so. All we did was to repeat the assurances that were given to the Attorney General right at the start of this unnecessary case.
We said at the time it was for Mr Larkin to answer for the tens of thousands of pounds of public money he wasted by bringing this case in the first place. In my opinion his actions have did far more to damage the reputation of the Northern Ireland justice system than anything Peter Hain said in his book.
The upshot of all this is that the Government said it would abolish, once and for all, the offence of ‘scandalising a court’. So at least some good came out of this sorry episode. I suppose I should check they’ve actually done it!
And I was saved from slopping out with Peter Hain…