Sinn Fein and two of its representatives have launched a legal bid to halt a libel action brought against them by a sacked director of Northern Ireland Water.

A High Court judge was told the contents of press statements naming Declan Gormley did not have a defamatory meaning.

The case is due for hearing later this year, with the defendants wanting a jury sworn in if it does proceeds to trial.

Mr Gormley, a non-executive director in NI Water, was dismissed along with three other board members by former regional development minister Conor Murphy in 2010.

They were sacked following an investigation into how contracts were awarded at the government-owned company.

Mr Gormley emphatically denies any wrong-doing.

He has issued libel proceedings against Sinn Fein, party MLA Cathal Boylan and former assemblyman Willie Clarke.

His claim is being resisted on the grounds of fair comment, qualified privilege and a further defence of justification.

But lawyers for the three defendants also sought a preliminary ruling that there was effectively no case to answer.

They claimed the natural and ordinary meaning of the contested statements is not actionable.

Barrister Martin McCann said: “There is nothing defamatory in either of these, on any plain reading of them.

“What Mr Gormley really is complaining about is that he was sacked.”

Nicolas Hanna QC, for the former director, argued that reference was made to his client being dismissed over a “procurement scandal”.

He told the court: “The plaintiff is making the case that the words in the press statement meant he was culpable, responsible, that he was to be blame for this procurement scandal.”

Mr Hanna also accused the defendants of being “highly selective” in their interpretation of a Public Accounts Committee report central to the case.

“Far from vindicating the sacking of Mr Gormley, it does the opposite,” he contended.

Mr Justice Horner is expected to rule on the defence application at a later stage.

He listed the case for a further review early next month, with the trial due to begin on November 26.

Outside the court a solicitor for all defendants, Jack Quigley of Madden & Finucane, accepted the chances of halting the case were slim.

“Today we brought a meanings summons to attempt to have the plaintiff’s case struck out at this stage, however, the threshold for exclusion of meaning is very high,” he said.

“We shall await the court’s ruling but I do not anticipate a favourable one for us in light of this high threshold.”