Thursday 19 September 2019

Ex- junior minister says 'robber' headline caused loss of Dail seat

Former junior minister Paudie Coffey in a defamation
action against the ‘Kilkenny People’, at the High Court, Dublin
Former junior minister Paudie Coffey in a defamation action against the ‘Kilkenny People’, at the High Court, Dublin

Tim Healy

Former junior minister Senator Paudie Coffey claims an article in a local newspaper a few weeks before a general election was the major contributory factor in him losing his Waterford Dail seat for Fine Gael in 2016.

He says the article, in the Kilkenny People in January 2016, meant, among other things, he was guilty of misuse of public office, a thief and of severe ill repute.

He told the High Court it falsely called him "a robber" when it used a headline "Coffey the Robber".

It quoted comments from his FG Carlow-Kilkenny TD colleague at the time, John Paul Phelan, in relation to a row over moving the administrative boundary of Waterford into Kilkenny, a deeply contentious issue for Kilkenny people in that area, the court heard.

Mr Phelan, who like Mr Coffey before he lost his Dail seat, is now a junior environment minister, said Mr Coffey had been "banding together" with 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".

Iconic Newspapers, the publishers who own a number of provincial titles, deny the claims.

Mr Coffey told his counsel, Barney Quirke SC, he understood it was contentious but he was anxious to emphasise that the commission was independent and he avoided even making a representation to it in case he might be seen to be using his ministerial office to influence the outcome.

Having first won the seat in 2011, when there was a big swing to FG, Mr Coffey told the court he knew his situation was marginal when the 2016 election campaign came.

But, he strongly argued, he could have held it with just 250 swing votes. He believed the "robber" article was a major factor in him being unable to do so because some of his constituents and neighbours - his home in Portlaw is "three fields" from the Kilkenny/Waterford border - have Kilkenny connections and would have read it.

He was shocked when the story was first brought to his attention by a cousin who had received an email from a friend, former rugby international Mick Galwey, with a photo of the article and the comment: "Is this the best headline ever in the Kilkenny People this week, class, not even the Bomber will get ye out of this!!!!!!"

But he had an election to fight and the focus was on that, he said. It was not until a number of comments were made to him at funerals and social events that he said he became aware of the damage the article had done.

The one that prompted him to seek legal advice was when he met Mick Galwey at a Thomond Park memorial rugby match for the late Anthony Foley. As he approached, Mr Galwey, who was with a number of other former well-known internationals, said "here comes Coffey the robber" to which everyone laughed, including Mr Coffey. But, privately, he didn't feel it was funny.

During five days in the witness box, most under cross-examination, Mr Coffey was at times upset and emotional. He told of how he was proud of his family, his father was a councillor, his mother a public health nurse, and what he was doing now was fighting for his family name. It was also so that someone else would not be treated by a newspaper in this way with what he called "a total fabrication" and "lies".

Rossa Fanning, Iconic Newspaper's senior counsel, put it to him the Thomond Park incident was "all banter". He also put it to the senator that "all this meant you are taking it all too seriously and taking yourself too seriously".

He replied that counsel and Mick Galwey might think it was a joke but it was just one of a number of incidents where "people consistently referred to me as a robber as a result of that article and I was highly embarrassed".

Crotty the Robber was a Robin Hood figure/murderous highwayman, depending on your view, and it would not be the first time a politician was compared to a fictional or historical character, counsel said.

They included, he said, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar whose is referred to in the Phoenix magazine as "Vlad", a play on his surname with that of the 15th century prince, Vlad the Impaler. "He is not called a robber," Mr Coffey replied.

Counsel said it was not being suggested by the use of the name that the Taoiseach has "a propensity for impaling". Mr Coffey replied the Phoenix was a satirical magazine.

What about Roscommon politician Luke "Ming" Flanagan, after "Ming the Merciless", former Justice Minister John O'Donoghue, called "Bull McCabe" after the central character in John B Keane's play The Field, and his own former environment department minister Alan Kelly who is known as "AK-47" after the well-known rifle. None of them had sued, counsel said.

None of them were called a robber, Sen Coffey said.

A number of witnesses for the Coffey side told of the upset and distress the article had caused him.

His assistant and special ministerial adviser, Paul Fox, told him they needed to focus on retaining the seat when the article was published. But, Mr Fox said, Sen Coffey "wasn't happy and described it as lies, he just wasn't very happy".

Mr Fox agreed that in 2014, shortly after a poor showing in the local elections for FG, he had a conversation with then taoiseach Enda Kenny "over a pint" in the Gingerman pub in Dublin. Mr Fanning suggested to Mr Fox there was nothing sinister about this but it was a normal representation seeking to have a minister appointed in Waterford, where there was none, in order to bolster general election prospects.

Mr Fox said: "I might have made the point that if the constituency had a voice, the constituency would stand to benefit".

Mr Coffey was appointed a junior minister shortly afterwards.

John Paul Phelan, the TD who issued the press release on which the newspaper based its article, told the court last Friday he was surprised by the "Coffey the Robber" headline as he had headed his release "Hands off Kilkenny".

The trial goes into its third week when it resumes before Mr Justice Bernard Barton and a jury on Tuesday.

Sunday Independent

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