‘Traveller drug king’ libel case settled 10 minutes before ruling

Supreme Court was about to rule €900,000 award to Martin McDonagh was ‘excessive’

Martin McDonagh: the Sligo man’s libel case against the ‘Sunday World’ newspaper has been running for 17 years, said his counsel, Declan Doyle SC. Photograph: Collins Courts

Martin McDonagh: the Sligo man’s libel case against the ‘Sunday World’ newspaper has been running for 17 years, said his counsel, Declan Doyle SC. Photograph: Collins Courts

 

An appeal over a €900,000 defamation award was settled just 10 minutes before a seven-judge Supreme Court was about to deliver a majority judgment which would have substituted the award with a figure as low as €75,000.

The development came on Thursday in the long-running libel case involving Sligo man Martin McDonagh and the Sunday World newspaper.

In 2008, a High Court jury awarded him €900,000 over a 1999 article describing him as a “Traveller drug king”.

The story was carried after gardaí seized IR£500,000 worth of cannabis and amphetamines in August 1999, in Tubbercurry, Co Sligo, and was published during Mr McDonagh’s seven-day detention for questioning in connection with that seizure.

Released without charge

Mr McDonagh denied any involvement in drugs and was ultimately released without charge. The Sunday World denied libel and pleaded the article was true.

The newspaper appealed the jury award, and a condition of being allowed appeal was that it would pay Mr McDonagh one-tenth (€90,000) of the award.

In 2015, the Court of Appeal ruled the jury decision was perverse and found that Mr McDonagh was a drug dealer. Mr McDonagh then appealed to the Supreme Court which said the appeal court was incorrect and its order must be reversed in full.

As the Supreme Court was about to deliver its decision, Declan Doyle SC, for Mr McDonagh, said the case had been “settled 10 minutes ago”. Asked by Chief Justice Susan Denham how long the case had been going on, Mr Doyle said 17 years.

“And 10 minutes ago you settle it,” said a clearly annoyed Chief Justice.

Redacted

After a recess, the Chief Justice said the court had decided to deliver its judgment which would be available later, with the substituted award figure redacted. All the judges said the €900,000 was excessive or disproportionate.

Chief Justice Denham said Mr McDonagh had a criminal record, evaded tax, made a settlement with the Criminal Assets Bureau and there was evidence at the trial, which was not disputed, in relation to Mr McDonagh and drugs.

He did not enjoy a good reputation. She was satisfied a fair, reasonable and proportionate award would be much nearer the figure which had been proposed by the newspaper (€75,000).