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Saturday 15 December 2018

Paper to appeal €900,000 libel award for 'drug king' article

Dearbhail McDonald, Tim Healy and  Anne Marie Walsh

THE 'Sunday World' is set to appeal a landmark €900,000 libel award handed down to a man deemed a tax evader and criminal by a High Court jury.

Yesterday, Martin McDonagh, who was called a Traveller "drug king" in an article published in the 'Sunday World' in 1999, received €900,000 from a jury following a five-day trial after it found that the article had failed to prove he was a drug dealer and loan shark.

The award is the highest in the history of the State for a defamation action and dwarfs last year's previous libel record of some €750,000 that was handed down to billionaire tycoon Denis O'Brien.

Last night, the 'Sunday World' said that it would appeal the jury's decision to the Supreme Court.

Difficulties

"This case highlights enormous difficulties the newspaper industry in Ireland faces with current defamation legislation, which for many years we have vigorously and repeatedly campaigned to be reformed," said Sunday World editor Colm MacGinty.

The National Union of Journalist branded the scale of damages as "alarming".

"Currently, the Defamation Bill is dragging its way through the Oireachtas and there has been a refusal on the part of many politicians to accept that we need libel reform," said NUJ Irish Secretary Seamus Dooley.

"Damages of this scale pose a serious threat to the viability of newspapers and without passing judgment on the verdict, the damages seem to be totally disproportionate."

Yesterday, a jury found that Martin McDonagh, a father of eight from Cranmore Drive, Sligo, was libelled by the 'Sunday World' in an article published on September 5, 1999.

The article nicknamed him "The Shark", alleging that he was involved in money-lending as well as having masterminded the importation of the largest amount of cannabis and ecstasy into the west of Ireland in 1999.

The newspaper denied the claim and says the words complained of were true in substance and fact.

Following a five day trial, the jury, after two-and-a-quarter hours of deliberation, awarded him damages of €900,000 plus costs.

Hugh Mohan for the 'Sunday World' said he would be making an application for a stay pending appeal and Mr Justice Eamon de Valera said he would hear it in a week's time.

During the trial, the court heard the 'Sunday World' wrote the article while Mr McDonagh was being held for seven days at Manorhamilton Garda Station for questioning. He was handed the newspaper with article by a garda and was shocked by it.

He claimed the only reason he had been arrested was because he happened to be "on the beer" with two of the people who were ultimately convicted in connection with the Tubercurry drug seizure.

He was released after seven days of questioning, never re-arrested and never charged. But, he said, the article turned his life upside down.

Accounts

Mr McDonagh said he had made his money from a rubbish collection business in England. The money which went through his accounts -- estimated by his accountant at IR£419,000 but put by CAB at IR£665,000 -- was from that business and from a pub in which he was involved in Sligo for a time.

He had made a €100,000 settlement with the Criminal Assets Bureau in 2004 but it had nothing to do with crime, he said.

The court heard from a CAB officer that they pursued him for the €100,000 because they were satisfied he was involved in "substantial" drug trafficking and in a dole scam in England.

In interview notes read by the gardai to court, Mr McDonagh told officers it was his brother Michael who had organised the importation of the drugs.

Gardai also said that during the interviews he admitted he was a loan shark and involved in a welfare fraud in England, but at all times he denied he was involved in drug dealing.

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