Farmer faces legal costs of £1m as libel case against `Sunday Times' fails

 

A Co Louth farmer who sued the Sunday Times for libel over a 1985 article in which he was described as the IRA's "Officer Commanding for the whole of Northern Ireland" lost his action in the High Court yesterday.

Mr Thomas Murphy now faces a legal bill estimated at more than £1 million.

A jury of eight women and three men found against Mr Murphy in his action. They found the article published on June 30th, 1985, meant Mr Murphy was "a prominent member" of the IRA, that he "planned murder and the bombing of property" and that those words were true "in substance or in fact".

The jury took just one hour to reach its verdict. Mr Murphy, who had attended the entire hearing up to yesterday morning, was not in court for the verdict at 3.30 p.m.

Mrs Justice McGuinness discharged the jury from service for 10 years. She awarded costs of the action to the Sunday Times against Mr Murphy and also awarded it costs of a previous libel action taken by Mr Murphy which he lost in the High Court in 1990 but which was returned by the Supreme Court to the High Court for a new trial.

Mr Murphy (47), of Ballbinaby, Hackballscross, Co Louth, had sued Times Newspapers Ltd, a former Sunday Times editor, Mr Andrew Neil, and four journalists - Mr Andrew Hogg, Mr Barrie Penrose, Mr Chris Ryder and Ms Rowena Webster - over a Sunday Times article of June 30th, 1985, entitled "Portrait of a Check-In Terrorist".

The article dealt with an IRA campaign to bomb British seaside resorts. It claimed the IRA's army council "last February appointed a farmer in the Republic, called `Slab' Murphy (not his real name) to be its operations commander for the whole of Northern Ireland".

The article also claimed that "Murphy is likely to have had to sanction certain key Provisionals travelling to Britain to take part in this summer's planned bombing campaign".

The hearing opened on April 30th. Evidence concluded on Thursday and a closing speech was delivered by Mr Paul Gallag her SC on behalf of the Sunday Times. Yesterday Mr Eamon Leahy SC closed the case for Mr Murphy and, after being charged by Mrs Justice McGuinness, the jury retired to consider its verdict at 2.20 p.m. It was given five questions to consider.

To question 1: "Did the words complained of mean and were they understood to mean that: (a) Thomas Murphy was a prominent member of the Provisional IRA, an unlawful organisation and an organisation associated in the public mind with unlawful violence, brutality and murder? (b) Thomas Murphy planned murder and the bombing of property?" The jury answered yes to both parts.

Question 2 stated: "If you answer `Yes' to paragraph (a) or (b) of question 1, have the defendants proved that such words were true in substance or in fact, that is to say: (a) that Thomas Murphy was a prominent member of the Provisional IRA, an unlawful organisation and an organisation associated in the public mind with unlawful violence, brutality and murder, (b) that Thomas Murphy planned murder and the bombing of property". The jury answered yes to (a) and yes to (b).

It was told if it answered yes to questions one and two, it did not have to proceed to the remaining three questions which dealt with evidence regarding reputation.

During the trial, gardai gave evidence that Mr Murphy had been arrested on a number of occasions up to 1989 but had not been arrested since. On one occasion he was arrested in a car stopped near Monaghan town. Two other men were in the car, Mr Michael McKevitt and a Mr Martin from Crossmaglen.

Supt Michael Staunton told the court it was his belief Mr Murphy was a senior member of the IRA and that was Mr Murphy's reputation among gardai in the Dundalk area and further afield. He agreed Mr Murphy was never charged or convicted of IRA membership but said there were difficulties in securing a conviction solely on the basis of the belief of a Garda chief superintendent.

The court was told a false passport in the name of Mr Jim Faug hey was found in Mr Murphy's home on June 27th, 1989, during a Garda search. Mr Kevin Feeney SC, for the Sunday Times, said it had Mr Murphy's photograph and featured an identical height and eye colour to Mr Murphy's. It showed the holder had made a number of brief trips to Greece.

The newspaper contended the passport was one of a batch stolen from the Department of Foreign Affairs in 1984 and some of those stolen passports were subsequently found on people who were convicted of IRA-related offences.

Mr Murphy denied to the court that he had used the passport for brief visits to Greece and denied those visits were on IRA business or to buy arms for the IRA. He also denied visiting Yugoslavia for IRA purposes.

Asked if he supported the IRA, he said: "Not really."

A convicted IRA murderer turned informer, Mr Sean O'Callag han, told the hearing he saw Mr Murphy at three IRA gatherings - one meeting of the IRA "revolutionary council" in 1983 at which, according to Mr O'Callaghan, Mr Gerry Adams, Mr Martin McGuinness and Mr Pat Doherty, were also present - and two meetings of the IRA's general headquarters staff some time between late 1984 and 1985.

A former IRA man, Mr Eamon Collins, said Mr Murphy was the most senior IRA man he had met and said Mr Murphy told him he was representing the army council at an IRA inquiry into a botched shooting in Newry in October 1983.

He said Mr Murphy was also present at a social function in Dundalk in 1983 organised to impress IRA "generals".

Closing the case for Mr Murphy, Mr Leahy said the Sunday Times had put up "a cowardly cocktail of defences" and relied on the evidence of an Mr O'Callaghan and Mr Eamon Collins and evidence regarding passports, a driving licence and an arms bunker to support its claim that Mr Murphy was a prominent member of the IRA.

That was the sole evidence regarding justification and none of it proved Mr Murphy was a prominent member of the IRA who sanctioned murder and bombing, he said.

Mr Leahy said the jury should have no regard to the evidence of Mr O'Callaghan, a convicted murderer, or to Mr Collins, who had admitted involvement in five murders; both men had told lies and had financial deals with the Sunday Times.

Mr O'Callaghan was delighted to treat the court as "some class of souped-up Late Late Show" and delighted to recoup the rewards for his wrongdoing and lying. His evidence amounted to nothing, Mr Leahy said.

One of the peculiarities of the case was that when it came to justification of the reputation of the Sunday Times, the newspaper was prepared to send paid witnesses to the box but not the four journalists who had written the article or the then editor.

"The Sunday Times has refused to put its mouth where its money was," he said. It had claimed to be a respected newspaper with no evidence being given.