Court hears FG senator suing local paper over report which he claims likened him to a 'highway robber'

Paudie Coffey

A Fine Gael politician claims he was defamed when likened to an 18th century highway robber in a report in a local newspaper of comments by a fellow FG TD about boundary changes in south Kilkenny, the High Court has heard.

Paudie Coffey, a former TD and former Minister of State for the Environment, now a Senator, is suing Iconic Newspapers, publishers of the article in the Kilkenny People on January 15, 2016.

The article, headed "Coffey the Robber", stated fellow FG TD John Paul Phelan had launched a furious broadside on the then minister of state accusing him of trying to "rob" a chunk of south Kilkenny.

Deputy Phelan said Mr Coffey and then senior Environment Minister, Alan Kelly, were "banding together to commit 'daylight robbery'".

Deputy Phelan was then quoted as saying: "We've all heard of Crotty the robber - the 18th century highwayman who hid himself away in a cave in the foothills of the Comeragh Mountains.

"He was the leader of a gang of bloodthirsty highwaymen."

Sen Coffey says those words were defamatory and meant, among other things, he was guilty of misuse of public office and was a person of severe ill-repute, akin to an 18th century highwayman from Waterford.

Sen Coffey comes from Waterford and lives in Portlaw.

He also claims it meant he was unfit to hold a position of minister of state and was involved in attempting to have part of the Kilkenny constituency become Waterford.

He claims the article was false, published maliciously and he is seeking damages.

The newspaper publisher denies the claims.

It denies the article in its natural and ordinary meaning could be understood to mean what Sen Coffey says.

It pleads the natural and ordinary meaning of the article was, among other things, that a review of the Waterford/Kilkenny boundary was underway and that Deputy Phelan publicly and politically disagreed with his FG colleague in relation to it.

John Paul Phelan

It also meant Mr Phelan believed his chances of future electoral success would be adversely affected by the boundary change and had criticised the review process.

The paper denies the words were published falsely, excessively or maliciously or that it damaged Sen Coffey's reputation or caused, or was likely to cause, financial loss.

It says it will rely on the Civil Liability Act 1961, insofar as the individual wholly or partly responsible for publishing the alleged defamatory words, it is Deputy Phelan, to who the defendant has no links or responsibilities.

The paper says the article was published in good faith as part of its lawful and legitimate reporting on matters of public concern.

Opening the case before a judge and jury, Richard Kean SC, for Sen Coffey, said what happened was "simply appalling and utterly indefensible".

Mr Kean said the paper had refused to apologise and threatened to pursue him for costs if he was "silly enough" to go ahead with the case.

He was seeking to vindicate his good name and repair the damage caused to him, counsel said.

The case continues before Mr Justice Bernard Barton and a jury.

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