A man has been awarded €900,000 in damages against the Sunday World newspaper for an article alleging he was a ‘drug king’.

It is the largest damages award for libel in the history of the state.

45-year-old Martin McDonagh, who is a member of the Travelling community, was awarded the damages by a jury at the High Court.

The largest award before this was the €750,000 awarded to Denis O'Brien against the Irish Daily Mirror in 2006.

Outside the court, Mr McDonagh said he was delighted and this was an end to a nine-year nightmare.

He said he had got justice but plenty of other people have not got justice from the tabloids.

Sunday World editor Colm McGinty said, 'The Sunday Word is disappointed at the verdict and will be appealing the jury's decision to the Supreme Court.'

Following a five day trial, the jury was asked to decide whether the newspaper had proved that he was a drug dealer and a loan shark, to which they replied no.

The jury was also asked whether the paper had proved Mr McDonagh was a tax evader and a criminal, to which they replied yes.

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, which at IR£500,000 worth of ecstasy and cannabis was and remains the biggest haul in the north-west.

He was released after seven days of questioning, never re-arrested and never charged. But, he said, the article turned his life upside down, caused him to be barred from most pubs in Sligo and made people walk on the other side of the street when the saw him coming.

Refuse business

Mr McDonagh said he had made his money from a successful rubbish collection business he operated in England.

The money which went through his accounts, estimated by his accountant at IR£419,000 but put by CAB at IR£665,00, was from that business and from a pub in which he was involved in Sligo for a time.

He had also bought a ‘broken down’ shop in Sligo in 1992, part funded by a IR£8,500 court settlement he got for an accident.

He had made a €100,000 settlement with the Criminal Assets Bureau in 2004 but it had nothing to do with crime, he said, it was for failure to pay tax and for signing on the dole while he was working. He said he used the shop, which was worth €225,000 in 2004 when he sold it, to fund the settlement with CAB.

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

The court also heard from gardaí who had interviewed him during his seven days of detention following the drug seizure. In interview notes read by the gardaí to court, Mr McDonagh told officers it was his brother Michael who had organised the importation of the drugs and that he (Michael) was the ‘Mr Big.’

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

Mr McDonagh, who admitted he had previously been a Sinn
Fein supporter, denied saying to gardaí that the Sunday World ‘has me destroyed, Sinn Fein will be after me.’

He believed the gardaí were ‘looking for a fall guy’ over the Tubercurry haul and they turned to him.

Gardaí told the court that he had a reputation as a drug dealer and a loan shark in Sligo before the Sunday World article.

Officers said they did not know how the newspaper got the very detailed information which was published while he was still in detention.

Counsel for Mr McDonagh, Declan Doyle SC, said Mr McDonagh's rights to due process had been seriously interfered with when the article was published while he was still in detention.