Fine Gael Senator Paudie Coffey believes the loss of his Dáil seat in 2016 by 300 votes was due to a newspaper article about county boundary changes which likened him to an 18th century robber, the High Court has heard.
He is suing Iconic Newspapers, publishers of the Kilkenny People over the June 15, 2016, article headed “Coffey the Robber”.
It contained comments from FG colleague, John Paul Phelan TD, accusing the then Minister for State, now Senator Coffey, of trying to “rob” a chunk of south Kilkenny.
Deputy Phelan was then quoted as saying: “We’ve all heard of Crotty the robber – the 18th century highwayman who hid himself away in a cave in the foothills of the Comeragh Mountains…He was the leader of a gang of bloodthirsty highwaymen.”
Opening Sen Coffey’s case yesterday, Richard Kean SC said the article was published about three weeks before the general election and his client lost his Dáil seat, which he first won in 2011, by 300 votes and he knows where those votes were lost.
He became depressed and isolated after he lost his seat and was subjected to comments such as “Coffey the robber” at sporting events and other occasions, counsel said.
It was extremely defamatory to call a man a robber who had not so much as been cautioned by the gardaí, counsel said. It was not parody or humour, he said.
It was also not part, as the newspaper claimed, of a public discourse or debate about boundary changes because Sen Coffey had never been asked by the paper to respond to the claims of Deputy Phelan.
It was sloppy journalism and a breach of journalistic guidelines by not getting the other side of the story, he said.
In defending the case, the paper had continued to fail to understand, or ignored, the difference between a “boundary commission”, which had been dealing with Kilkenny/ Waterford boundary changes, and an “electoral boundary commission”, counsel said. Sen Coffey did not have any involvement in the boundary commission and had specifically made no submissions to it in case someone might suggest he was using his ministerial office to do so, he said.
Mr Kean said his client sought a retraction and redress from the paper but this was not forthcoming. As a last resort he had to bring defamation proceedings to vindicate his good name. What had happened to him was “simply appalling and utterly indefensible”, counsel said.
Sen Coffey (49), who was born and lives in Portlaw, Co Waterford with his wife and three children, was appointed to the senate by Enda Kenny after he lost his Dáil seat in 2016.
In his action, he claims the words in the article were defamatory and meant, among other things, he was guilty of misuse of public office and was a person of severe ill-repute, akin to an 18th century highwayman from Waterford.
He also claims it meant he was unfit to hold a position of minister of state and was involved in attempting to have part of the Kilkenny constituency become Waterford.
He claims the article was false, published maliciously and he is seeking damages.
The newspaper publisher denies the claims.
It pleads the natural and ordinary meaning of the article was, among other things, that a review of the Waterford/Kilkenny boundary was underway and that Deputy Phelan publicly and politically disagreed with his FG colleague in relation to it.
It also meant Deputy Phelan believed his chances of future electoral success would be adversely affected by the boundary change and had criticised the review process.
The paper denies the words were published falsely, excessively or maliciously or that it damaged Sen Coffey’s reputation or caused, or was likely to cause, financial loss.
It says it will rely on the Civil Liability Act 1961 in its defence.
The case continues before Mr Justice Bernard Barton and a jury.
by Ann O’Loughlin for the Irish Examiner