One hundred years ago, Belfast was one of the world’s premier industrial cities. Eric Hobsbawm’s Industry and Empire celebrates the sheer intensity of industrial production there. Today things have changed massively. It’s a commonplace to lament the dominance of the state sector, dependent on government subvention. But all is not lost for Belfast’s entrepreneurial spirit. The small city contains some of the world’s most active and vigilant libel lawyers. In the years of the Troubles, inexperienced journalists from outside stumbled into the warzone and made mistakes. The consequence was rich pickings for those who could claim to have been maligned. Since the start of the peace process, the Republican movement has been particularly vigilant in policing its reputation. The failure thus far of Northern Ireland to follow the UK libel law reform of 2013 – which is an attempt to defend honest investigative reporting – has also played a role in maintaining the libel industry.
Malachi O’Doherty’s fine book is written in the context of this state of affairs. At times the urge to display fairness is all too painfully obvious. But the author has no alternative. The point about Gerry Adams is not that his public reputation and the substantial political support he enjoys