A parliamentary assistant to former TD Paudie Coffey advised in the run-up to the last general election that he should remain focused on trying to win his seat rather than deal immediately with a response to a newspaper article which was allegedly defamatory, the High Court has heard.
Paul Fox, who worked as assistant and advisor to the then deputy, now Senator Coffey, said the Kilkenny People article of January 2016 was “was certainly not going to help” the election campaign over the following few weeks.
He said it was difficult to judge at the time because they were gearing up for the campaign and his advice was that was where the focus should be.
He agreed with Barney Quirke SC, for Sen Coffey, his advice at that time was “damage limitation in terms of the article”.
He was giving evidence on the sixth day of Sen Coffey’s action against Iconic Newspapers, publishers of the paper, over comments from FG Kilkenny colleague John Paul Phelan TD 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.
Mr Fox said when he (Fox) first discussed the article, Sen Coffey “wasn’t happy and described it as lies, he just wasn’t very happy”.
He advised Sen Coffey to deal with it later as they had an election campaign to win.
He also advised against seeking a retraction at the time because of the election news cycle and because they could have “got bogged down in the right to reply”.
A lifelong friend of Sen Coffey and his ministerial driver for two years told the court he became very isolated and “went into his shell” as a result of the article.
Michael O’Brien, who also canvassed for Sen Coffey said: It was frightening, it was not the Paudie Coffey I knew.
He said the two of them were walking to a hurling match shortly after the publication when one of a group of men shouted “go away Coffey you robber” and there was a big laugh. Mr O’Brien said he was taken aback and Sen Coffey didn’t think it was funny.
Breandán Coffey, his older brother, said Paudie’s demeanour changed after the article and he “went into himself”. He told Paudie he needed to do something about it. It “impacted on him horrifically”, he said.
Earlier, continuing cross-examination by Rossa Fanning SC, for Iconic, Sen Coffey said he was not aware of a revival in interest in “Crotty the Robber” shortly before the Kilkenny People article.
Counsel said some people referred to him as a Robin Hood type figure who robbed the rich and gave to the poor while others said he was a bloodthirsty murderer.
Mr Fanning put to him not a single person will come and say they thought less of him as a result of the article.
Sen Coffey said Crotty was not a fictional character who was hanged for his crimes but the article call him and robber.I am not a robber and immediately someone reads that they associate me with it and I would argue does lower me in a person’s view because of the charges made in the article.
He agreed no defamation proceedings had been brought by former environment minister Alan Kelly who was also named in the article as having “banded together” with then junior minister Coffey to “commit daylight robbery”.
In re-examination by his own counsel, Sen Coffey said he would have responded if he had been given an opportunity by the paper before it published its article.
He became upset as he spoke of the Coffey name and the community service his father, who was a councillor for 32 years, had given and his mother who was a public health nurse.
The attack on him by the newspaper “affected me deeply and took my name away and my family’s good name”, he said.
The trial continues before Mr Justice Bernard Barton and a jury.
By Ann O’Loughlin – Irish Examiner