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

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - News -

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 en­v­i­ron- ment 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.

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Ireland

© PressReader. All rights reserved.