Is Naomi Long’s weakness, her ‘inability to admit an obvious mistake?’

Obelisk is a Slugger reader from County Tyrone

In launching her party’s manifesto, Alliance leader and East Belfast candidate Naomi Long emphasised that she felt the ‘honeymoon period’ for the return of Stormont has ended.

People now want results, less excuses and more competence, which can be considered an awkward contrast given the controversy now dogging the Justice Minister over a recent botched piece of legislation.

On June 1st the High Court in Belfast overturned the law in question which had been passed before the prior collapse of the Assembly which, according to The Guardian in this report, “granted anonymity for life and 25 years after death to anyone suspected of sexual offences who had not been charged.

Media groups representing a number of publications including the Guardian and the Belfast Telegraph challenged the act, claiming it criminalised investigative journalism into sexual abuse, and had the absurd effect that no one in Northern Ireland could say that Jimmy Savile was a paedophile.”

The law appears to have been intended to grant protection to those who were suspected of sex offences but who could not be charged, either for lack of evidence or because they weren’t actually guilty.

Such protection may not be entirely out of order given that being accused of sexual crimes is essentially a social death sentence, with ‘no smoke without fire’ on this highly charged topic ensuring the public is highly unlikely to give anyone so accused the benefit of the doubt. Careers and relationships can be destroyed instantly, and self-appointed ‘paedophile hunters’ are out there ready to deliver their own brand of justice. On the face of it, some sort of protection seems in order.

However, the legal remedy appears to have been exceptionally badly thought through. As The Guardian continues

Mr Justice Humphreys said the act was unlawful because it was incompatible with the right to freedom of expression under the European convention on human rights. He also ruled that the Northern Ireland assembly had failed to debate the issue of public interest when passing the law.”

Some of the parties that previously backed the law such as the SDLP and UUP have now recanted, with UUP MLA Robbie Butler stating his mind was changed after talking with a friend who survived sexual abuse.

Naomi Long refuses to accept there was any error in the legislation, and is in fact considering an appeal on the judgement.

As Sam McBride writes here in the Telegraph (and we have to point out the Belfast Telegraph was a party to the court case that got the law struck down so the following is not entirely unbiased)

“… the Alliance leader and Justice Minister was interviewed by Mark Carruthers on The View ahead of her candidacy in East Belfast.

During that interview, she gave a deeply misleading answer when she was pressed on why she’d urged MLAs to pass a law which made it a criminal offence to say “Jimmy Savile was a paedophile”.

She also went out of her way to emphasise that individuals like Savile were legally “innocent people” — technically true, but only because the justice system failed to deliver justice on such monsters during their lifetimes.”

It’s worth emphasising that one line, that the law would have made it a criminal offense to say ‘Jimmy Savile was a paedophile’. Effective political argument is summing up a position on a complex issue in a succinct way that cuts through to the public and, as such examples go, this one is particularly painful.

Something clearly went very wrong with this law for the High Court to strike it down as incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights and Mrs.Long was the minister at the time who was responsible for shepherding it through the legislature, even if the other executive parties supported the law at the time. The buck, ultimately, stops with her.

But is Sam McBride right when he describes this controversy as exposing Naomi Long’s weakness, her ‘inability to admit an obvious mistake?’. And what does this portend for the election on July 5th when Naomi Long hopes to unseat DUP leader Gavin Robinson? Will it swing enough crucial voters his way?

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