High Court dismisses Sinn Féin constituency organiser’s defamation claim against newspaper and reporter

Liam Lappin’s contended meanings for article that did not name him were ‘strained’ and ‘utterly unreasonable’, judge said

The High Court has dismissed a Sinn Féin constituency organiser’s defamation claim against a Belfast newspaper and one of its journalists.

Mr Justice Charles Meenan said the article and photograph published by Sunday Life on March 1st, 2020, did not convey what Liam Lappin claimed.

Mr Lappin’s contended meanings were “strained”, “forced” and “utterly unreasonable”, the judge said.

There was “no reference to the plaintiff, express or implied” in the article, while a group photo in which he appeared had red circles superimposed around the heads of the two people being referred to, the judge said.


The judge dismissed the claim for defamation relating to the photographs and article and struck out his claim for injurious falsehood as his pleadings disclosed no cause of action.

Mr Lappin, who is also a schoolteacher and has an address in Drumcondra, Dublin, sued Mediahuis UK Limited and its reporter Suzanne Breen over the article and picture.

He has also sued columnist Ruth Dudley Edwards alleging he was defamed in a tweet she posted on March 2nd, 2020, in which she shared the article and added a comment.

The defamation and injurious falsehood claim against Ms Dudley Edwards was not part of the strike-out application and remains in the case alongside Mr Lappin’s allegations of breach of his privacy and data protection against Mediahuis.

Mediahuis’s lawyers told the court Ms Dudley Edwards, who is separately represented, is not an employee of the media group and was tweeting from her personal account.

In his judgment, Mr Justice Meenan said Mr Lappin was not named in the article, but he is in a group photograph accompanying it that was taken at the 2019 Sinn Féin Newry and Armagh Christmas party.

Present in the photo of about 14 people, said Mr Justice Meenan, was Frank McCabe, who was described as “Officer Commanding of the IRA in South Armagh”.

Mr Lappin claimed the article and accompanying photograph meant, in their ordinary meaning and innuendo, that he “is a member of a criminal and terrorist organisation operating under the name and style of the IRA”. He also alleged the publication meant, in its ordinary meaning and through innuendo, that he is a criminal murderer and a member of a criminal group that engages in murder, said the judge.

Mediahuis’s senior counsel, Ronan Kennedy, told the court during the hearing of his client’s strike-out application last June that the article in question was “not about the plaintiff at all” and the meaning Mr Lappin claims can be inferred from it “stretches credulity”.

Mr Kennedy said it is not usual practice, as was suggested by the other side, to blur out the faces of individuals who are not the subject of the article. Instead, the court heard, the newspaper circled in red the two with whom the reporting was concerned: Mr McCabe and Conor Murphy MLA, who was then finance minister in Northern Ireland.

Mr Justice Meenan said the strap headline on the piece was: “Exclusive Sinn Féin man seen socialising with IRA chief whose gang is accused over attack”, while the main headline was: “Murphy and the provo boss linked to Quinn murder”.

The piece opened with a line saying Mr Murphy was with the IRA commander “whose gang members are accused of murdering Paul Quinn”. Mr Quinn was brutally murdered in 2007 aged 21.

The article stressed there was no suggestion Mr McCabe played a role in the killing.

Mr Lappin claimed there was an innuendo he was associated with the IRA, which he described in his pleadings as a “criminal and terrorist organisation”.

Mr Justice Meenan said a “reasonable reader” would know when looking at the photograph that Mr Murphy and Mr McCabe were being singled out for a particular reason. The reference to Sinn Féin “man” and IRA “chief” is in the singular and does not refer to any other person in the photo.

If the reader was in any doubt about this, this is dispelled by a further accompanying photo of Mr Murphy and Mr McCabe at a separate social event, he said.

“A reader, even reading between the lines, would have no difficulty rejecting the meanings contended for by the plaintiff where he is neither named nor identified where others specifically are,” the judge said.

Mr Justice Meenan added that it was not material that Mediahuis and Ms Breen had not delivered a defence to Mr Lappin’s claim, as section 14 of the 2009 Defamation Act permits the bringing of a strike-out application “at any time after the bringing of the defamation action concerned”.

The purpose of section 14 is to provide a procedure where unmeritorious actions can be dismissed without having to incur the considerable costs of going to a full trial, he said.

The judge said he believes Mediahuis and Ms Breen are entitled to have their legal costs of the motion and defending the defamation and injurious falsehood claim to date paid for by Mr Lappin, but he can hear submissions from both sides on that.

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Ellen O'Riordan

Ellen O'Riordan

Ellen O'Riordan is an Irish Times reporter