Fine Gael Senator Paudie Coffey is suing for defamation over the January 2016 newspaper article in the Kilkenny People and has suggested it was the main factor in the loss of his Waterford Dáil seat.
Sen Coffey is suing Iconic Newspapers, publishers of the paper, over comments from Fine Gael TD John Paul Phelan describing a proposal to bring part of the Kilkenny administrative area in Waterford city as “daylight robbery”.
Mr Phelan said there was a “bloodthirsty” 18th-century highwayman in Waterford called “Crotty the Robber” and now “Coffey the Robber” was trying to do the same thing.
Sen Coffey says that was defamatory and the publisher denies this.
He was his fourth day in the witness box and his third under cross-examination.
Rossa Fanning SC, for Iconic, put it to him that the language used in the article was colourful comment in the context of other newspaper articles quoting colourful comments by local politicians about the Waterford/Kilkenny boundary issue.
Sen Coffey said other comments were part of political debate but the Kilkenny People article was far more pointed and alluded to some form of malpractice by him in his position as a junior environment minister at the time.
It defamed him and his family and was published without giving him the opportunity to respond before it was published, he said.
Counsel said he was not the first politician to be compared to fictional or historical characters.
They included, he said, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar whose is referred to as “Vlad” in the Phoenix magazine, Roscommon politician Luke “Ming” Flanagan, and former Justice Minister John O’Donoghue who was known as “Bull McCabe” after the central character in John B Keane’s The Field.
None of those politicians had sued, counsel said.
None of those people were called a robber, Sen Coffey said.
Counsel suggested to him that this was “part of the rough and tumble of politics” and that when his FG colleague, Mr Phelan, gives evidence, he will tell the jury he is “astonished we are here”.
Sen Coffey said he has been in politics for 20 years through good and bad times.
“And never in my life have I experienced the type of headline in this article published at a vulnerable time in my career”.
Mr Fanning put it to him he gave a completely different public explanation last month for the loss of his Dáil seat when he told the London Times it was due to the controversy over a catheterisation laboratory at University Hospital Waterford.
Sen Coffey said the cath lab issue contributed to the loss of his seat, as did the water charges controversy, but the “main factor” was the Kilkenny People article.
He accepted there had been a ten per cent drop in the FG vote in 2016 nationally and locally in Waterford from 2011.
He also agreed he had the disadvantage that FF’s successful candidate in Waterford, Mary Butler, came from his own area of Portlaw.
Earlier, he said he was “factually correct” in comments he made in a local radio interview about the boundary commission review months before the Kilkenny People article.
He disagreed he gave the impression in the interview he was responsible for the review.
The case continues.
by Ann O’Loughlin for the Irish Examiner.
Pic credit: Senator Paudie Coffey, pictured at the Four Courts. Pic: Collins Courts