John O'Donoghue: claimed article in Sunday newspaper libelled him

Former Ceann Comhairle John O'Donoghue has initiated libel proceedings against a Sunday newspaper but has decided not to take his case before a jury.

The Sunday Tribune understands that O'Donoghue last week lodged papers at the Dublin Circuit Civil Court claiming that he has been libelled by a recent front page article in the Sunday World. He has retained his former cabinet colleague Michael Mc­Dowell to represent him.

The fact that he has chosen to take his case to the non-jury Circuit Court has raised eyebrows in legal circles, with many believing that he has avoided a jury hearing be­cause there is such disgust among the public about his level of expenses while Ceann Comhairle and Minister of Arts, Sport and Tourism.

The majority of libel cases are heard before the High Court where there is the possibility of unlimited damages if the plaintiff is successful. Former communications consultant to the Department of the Environment Monica Leech recently secured a €1.9m award against the Evening Herald.

Circuit Civil Court rules dictate that a plaintiff can be awarded a maximum of €38,000 plus their costs.

The Sunday World last month published claims by a retired garda, Tom Noonan, that he stopped O'Donog­hue's state car on 10 September 2000 doing speeds in excess of 200kph near Castleisland in Co Kerry. O'Donoghue was then minister for justice and denied in the Dáil that he was a passenger in the car.

However last December, former garda Noonan stated to the High Court at a judicial review case that he was the garda who stopped the minister's car and that O'Don­oghue was in it at the time. He has since retired from the force.

John O'Donoghue has claimed that the article libelled him by stating he had misled the Dáil on the matter and had ruined the career of Tom Noonan, who has claim­ed that he was victimised by management after his claims and effectively hounded out of his job.

It is understood the Sunday World is standing over its story and will mount a full defence against O'Donoghue's claims.

No hearing date has yet been set but it will be next year at the earliest before the libel case is listed.

One legal source said: "To say there is amazement that O'Donoghue is only going to the Circuit Court is an understatement. If he is correct in his claims then he would be entitled to serious damages. The fact that he has not gone down that road is interesting. Maybe he feels that a jury would not have much sympathy for him at the moment."

Following the Sunday World article, O'Donoghue sent a solicitor's letter to the newspaper. Instead of using his long-time friend and solicitor, Gordon Holmes, whom he has appointed to a number of state positions, he directed legal firm Hayes and Sons to represent him.

O'Donoghue last month resigned as Ceann Comhairle following a series of Sunday Tribune revelations about the level of his expenses while in office over the last number of years.