Fine Gael senator claims article made him subject of ‘ridicule’

Paudie Coffey says story in ‘Kilkenny People’ defamed him and led to loss of Dáil seat

Senator Paudie Coffey is  pictured outside the Four Courts on Wednesday. Photograph: Collins Courts.

Senator Paudie Coffey is pictured outside the Four Courts on Wednesday. Photograph: Collins Courts.

 

A Fine Gael senator suing over a newspaper story which he says described him as a robber has told the High Court he was shocked and upset when he saw the article which caused him to be the subject of public ridicule.

Paudie Coffey said he “just could not believe” what the article said and that in his view it “hugely contributed” to the loss of his Dáil seat in 2016.

Mr Coffey said he was forced to bring defamation proceedings because the Kilkenny People refused to retract and offer redress for the January 2016 article, which he described as “a pure fabrication”.

Headlined ‘Coffey the Robber’, the article contained comments from Mr Coffey’s Fine Gael colleague, John Paul Phelan TD, about proposals to extend part of the local administrative area of Waterford into neighbouring Kilkenny.

The paper quoted verbatim from a press release issued by Mr Phelan in which he referred to an 18th century figure called ‘Crotty the Robber’ who led a gang of “bloodthirsty” highwaymen in the Comeragh Mountains.

“Now Coffey the Robber is trying to do the very same,” Mr Phelan said.

Mr Coffey, from Portlaw, Co Waterford, is suing Iconic Newspapers, publisher of the Kilkenny People, over the article which appeared on January 15th, 2016.

He says the piece was defamatory and meant, among other things, that he was guilty of misuse of public office and was a person of severe ill-repute, akin to an 18th century highwayman. The newspaper publisher denies the claims.

‘Class’

Mr Coffey said he learned of the article from an email sent by former Ireland international rugby player, Mick Galwey, to his first cousin.

Mr Galwey sent a photo of the article and wrote: “Is this the best headline ever in the Kilkenny People this week, class, not even the Bomber will get ye out of this!!!!!!”

Mr Coffey told his counsel, Barney Quirke BL, he was later subject to comments and ridicule at funerals, social events, hurling and rugby matches.

At a rugby match in Thomond Park in 2016, he met Mr Galwey, who was in the company of others, including well known rugby figures. Mr Galwey “turned round and said here comes ‘Coffey the Robber’ and there was a big laugh”.

Mr Coffey said he laughed along, but it was this incident that convinced him he had to do something to set the record straight.

Under cross-examination by Rossa Fanning SC, for Iconic Newspapers, Mr Coffey accepted he had only seen Mr Phelan’s press release for the first time in the witness box.

‘Politically impossible’

He said he did not think of suing Mr Phelan, or asking him for a retraction or apology, because it was not him who had published the article. He disagreed with counsel that it would have been “politically impossible to sue Deputy Phelan because you are a member of the same party”.

Mr Coffery agreed he had met Mr Phelan many times at parliamentary party meetings since the article was published but said the only time they spoke about it was last year.

He said Mr Phelan approached him asking about him suing over the story.

“He said: ‘Can’t you be bigger and step back’ and I said ‘no, I was damaged by that paper’”.

When counsel suggested he had not made a complaint to Fine Gael about what his colleague had said because “it was not all that serious”, Mr Coffey replied that it was a serious matter which he had been concerned about for a long time.

When Mr Fanning asked did he think Mr Galwey was being serious, he said: “He ridiculed me”.

“Are you seriously suggesting it was other than a joke,” counsel asked.

“It was a joke at my expense,” Mr Coffey replied.

The case continues.