Novelists call for change in Northern Ireland libel laws

Novelists including Sebastian Barry, Roddy Doyle and the Man Booker Prize-shortlisted Colm Tóibín have urged Northern Ireland to change its libel laws.

More than 30 writers have signed an open letter to the Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson, claiming that unreformed libel laws threaten their freedom to write.

The letter said: "As writers, we are particularly concerned about the impact of the unreformed libel laws on the freedom to write: biographers, historians, journalists and even novelists will remain vulnerable to libel actions on trivial and vexatious grounds. The mere threat of a libel action is also enough to discourage publishers from touching controversial subjects."

Libel laws in England and Wales were changed earlier in the year, when Parliament passed the Defamation Act 2013. The changes were designed to weed out trivial claims, limit libel tourism, and introduce a public interest defence. However, the Northern Ireland Executive has not shown any intention of extending to the plans to Northern Ireland.

The writers' letter said: "Without libel reform, the people of Northern Ireland will enjoy fewer free speech protections than their fellow citizens in England and Wales. We call upon the Executive to redress this imbalance, and breathe life into the right that underpins all other rights: our right to freedom of speech."

More than 60,000 people signed a petition calling for libel reform in the UK, following campaigning by the Libel Reform Campaign, led by English PEN, Index on Censorship and Sense About Science.