Fine Gael TD was surprised by ‘Coffey the Robber’ headline on article
John Paul Phelan says suggestion he wrote newspaper article at centre of Paudie Coffey defamation case is ‘outrageous’
John Paul Phelan pictured leaving court on Friday after giving evidence during the second week of a High Court action taken by his Fine Gael colleague Senator Paudie Coffey. Photograph: Collins Courts
A Fine Gael TD who issued a press release containing comments subsequently published by a Kilkenny newspaper and which are at the centre of a defamation action being taken by his party colleague Senator Paudie Coffey has told the High Court he was surprised at the headline which appeared on the article.
The article in the Kilkenny People newspaper was in relation to the announcement by Mr Coffey, then a junior minister and TD for Waterford, that there was to be a boundary commission review to look at moving part of Kilkenny into the Waterford administrative area.
Carlow-Kilkenny TD John Paul Phelan, who is now a Minister of State, told the the court on Friday he was surprised by the “Coffey the Robber” headline on the piece in the newspaper as the heading on his press release was “hands off Kilkenny”.
He was giving evidence on the eighth day of Mr Coffey’s action against Iconic Newspapers, publishers of the Kilkenny People, over the January 2016 article.
The article carried quotes from a press release issued by Mr Phelan saying Mr Coffey was “banding together” with the then environment minister Alan Kelly to commit “daylight robbery.”
He then went on to say there was an 18th century highwayman in Waterford called “Crotty the Robber” and now “Coffey the Robber was trying to do the very same”.
Mr Coffey claims the piece meant he was guilty of misuse of public office and a thief of severe ill repute. He believes he lost his Dáil seat in 2016, by a margin of 300 votes, as a result of the article, the court has heard.
The newspaper publisher denies the claims.
Mr Phelan told Rossa Fanning SC, for Iconic Newspapers, he was shocked when he learned from a tweet in 2015 that Mr Coffey announced there was to be a boundary review.
People in Kilkenny were “up in arms” about it as there had been a previous proposal in 2005 to move part of Kilkenny into Waterford and it was very much associated with identity, he said.
Cross examined by Barney Quirke SC, for Mr Coffey, he agreed he was angry over the boundary review. He disagreed he was hurt that he had not been told about it beforehand by his colleague but was surprised it had not been discussed politically before the announcement.
‘Hands off Kilkenny’
He disagreed too with counsel’s suggestion he felt “betrayed and bitter” by the boundary review.
He described as “outrageous” a suggestion by counsel that it was him and not a Kilkenny People journalist who wrote the article. “What you are saying is patently false”, he said. He sent press releases to the paper, but he had never written an article in his life.
Asked if he thought the Kilkenny paper’s general coverage of the boundary issue was balanced, he said he did not think so.
Asked was it fair, he said if you were a ratepayer in Kilkenny and €110m of your budget was to be removed by a boundary change, that would mean an increase in rates for those people and that got them agitated along with the identity issue.
Pressed by counsel about the need to provide fairness and balance, he repeated he did not think it was balanced because it was all from the Kilkenny side of the argument but that was from a paper which circulates mainly to Kilkenny people.
When counsel said the “robber” story was a “shocking article to publish”, he said he was surprised about it.
If it happened to him, he would be “up in arms”, counsel said. “I wouldn’t be happy”, he said.
Mr Phelan disagreed he had an unusual relationship with the Kilkenny People which, counsel said, never criticised him.
The TD said his relationship was normally just issuing press releases but while he would expect criticism, he would never expect a local newspaper to very badly criticise the local TD.
The case resumes on Tuesday.