So now we know. Sinn Féin some weeks ago chose their candidate for the Mid-Ulster seat vacated by Martin McGuinness: they picked veteran republican Francie Molloy, who was director of election for Bobby Sands and is currently deputy Speaker in the Stormont Assembly. The two unionist parties, after much to-ing and fro-ing, have now come up with an agreed candidate: Nigel Lutton. He’s a cousin of the DUP’s David Simpson and his father, an RUC reservist, was shot dead by the IRA in 1979.
There are a number of things to be kept in mind about this by-election. The first is that Nigel Lutton relates to David Simpson in other ways than that they are cousins. In 2007, David Simpson in the House of Commons named Francie Molloy as having been involved in the killing of Nigel Lutton’s father. The fact that he made the claim - which he said the police had given him - meant that he was protected by parliamentary privilege. That is, he couldn’t be charged with slander. Of course, if you have proof of your statement or claim, it stops being slander.
How has Molloy reacted? He has denied any such involvement and has challenged anyone (with Simpson in mind, I should think) to make such a claim outside the British parliament. The implication is that he would sue them.
So why did the DUP and the UUP choose Mr Lutton as their candidate? Well, the claim is that he helps highlight the plight of victims of the Troubles, and certainly Mr Lutton exemplifies just that. It's striking, though, that their choice was made after Sinn Féin had made theirs, so you may be sure Mr Lutton was chosen with Mr Simpson’s 2007 House of Commons claim in mind. The death of Mr Lutton’s father will now be a feature of the election campaign.
Statements made under parliamentary privilege are or can be deeply disturbing. The example that jumps out in terms of the north of Ireland is that made by Douglas Hogg in 1989. After a briefing from senior RUC officers, he claimed that some solicitors here were “unduly sympathetic to the cause of the IRA”. A few weeks later, Pat Finucane was shot dead in his home. Sir John Stevens, who authored a major report into collaboration between security forces and loyalism, said Hogg’s comments hadn’t been justified.
One of the cornerstones of the British justice system is that you are innocent until you are proved guilty. The fact that David Simpson made his claim under parliamentary privilege strongly suggests he had not got proof of that claim, any more than Hogg had of his. Yet the UUP and the DUP appear to have chosen their candidate with the notion of targeting Francie Molloy’s reputation. Had their sole objective been to highlight the unhappy state of victims of the Troubles, there are many others - unionist others - they could have chosen. By choosing Mr Lutton, they have put the notion of people being innocent until proven guilty under near-breaking-point pressure.
What’s almost equally dismaying is that the two unionist parties know that their man has practically no chance of winning. And of course if Willie Frazer were to come off the fence and stand, they’d have less chance still.
Footnote: As always, I welcome comment on and argument with this posting. But please, in the light of the response to my posting last Friday, engage with the argument and skip the insults, OK?