Of gombeens, fibs and the honour of Albert Reynolds

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IT IS proving to be a case worthy of the pen of a Myles na Gopaleen. The man who ran backwoods dance halls; the priest who was a paedophile; the murder of a postman; and a gombeen.

This is the stuff of the first confrontation between a leader and Times Newspapers since the days of Parnell. Albert Reynolds, who resigned two years ago after helping to broker the ceasefire in Northern Ireland, went into the witness box of court number 13 at the High Court in London last week to defend his reputation after the Sunday Times called him a fibber.

This is not only a case of the former railway clerk and ballroom-dancing businessman cum politician taking on Rupert Murdoch's empire. It is also a confrontation between Irish politics and the English justice system, between Gaelic and the comprehension of an English jury. It is expected to last four weeks.

Much mention is made of the Taoiseach, the Dail, Teachta Dala, Tanaiste, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. But most important of all in this case is the gombeen - a quaint but damning Irish expression once applied to speculators who profited from corn during the Irish famine.

Mr Reynolds is suing the Sunday Times over a headline saying "Goodbye, gombeen man - Why a fib too far proved fatal for the political career of Ireland's peacemaker and Mr Fixit." The paper denies libel, pleading qualified privilege and justification.

The disputed article appeared in the 20 November 1994 issue of the paper's English, Welsh and Scottish editions, but not in the Irish edition. It said: "In another age, Albert Reynolds could have been the classic gombeen man of Irish lore; the local fixer with a finger in every pie ... His slow fall last week, his fingernails screeching down the political cliff-face, has been welcomed with a whoop of delight by many Irish people who want to see their country dragged out of the past."

It continued: "The full story of his eclipse, however, has sullied Ireland's reputation, damaged its church, destroyed its peacemaker and provided its unionist neighbours with a fistful of new reasons to avoid contamination by the South."

At the case's heart is the paper's interpretation of the events surrounding the collapse of Mr Reynolds's government. This was precipitated by revelations of the then attorney general Harry Whelehan's failure to act on a Northern Ireland extradition request concerning paedophile priest Brendan Smyth.

The key issue is whether Mr Reynolds knew of the existence of an earlier extradition case when he told the Dail (on advice from Mr Whelehan) that the seven-month delay in the Smyth affair was because it was the first to be processed under a complex new extradition system.

It later emerged that there had been a precedent. A note from Mr Whelehan sent to the Dail, alerting him to this, failed to reach Mr Reynolds in time. Also crucially, it emerged that Mr Reynolds deferred further consideration of the Smyth extradition by a day because of the murder of a Newry postman and his concern about the impact on the peace process.

Amid the complexities there have been moments of drama. On Wednesday Mr Reynolds stood in the witness box brandishing two copies of the relevant Sunday Times. In one hand he held the Irish edition, in the other the London. In the latter was the description of him as a liar and gombeen man. This was the edition his London-based daughter, Miriam, saw and warned him about. In the edition Mr Reynolds went out to buy there was no such description. "The same paper," he said, "with the truth here" - indicating the Irish edition - "and lies here" - indicating the London one.

It meant that in Edinburgh, Durham, Oxford, Cambridge, Surrey and Aberdeen, wherever universities existed, they think him "a liar, a liar, a liar, a liar". On his lecture tours they know he had been referred to as "some kind of devil".

Mr Reynolds's family had been distressed, he said, and he knew how they felt. They knew how he felt, too, although it was too distressing to discuss. There was a catch of breath, a frown. At the back of the court sat Mr Reynolds's family, including his wife. She, said Mr Reynolds, had suffered from cancer. He wiped away a tear.

Lord Gareth Williams QC, his counsel, told the jury that if they had achieved all the former taoiseach had achieved, they would die happy. But Mr Reynolds was not happy. The paper had made him out to be a liar, although the Irish edition had conceded that he never saw the crucial note from Mr Whelehan.

Lord Williams argued: "That there was confusion he does not dispute; that there was inefficiency he will not deny. He will deny and deny again that he told lies to the Dail."

Lord Williams's work has been cut out. Not only has he been explaining the intricacies of Irish politics but he has also had to be mindful of the strange names, the strange titles, the words of Gaelic spattered amid the legal jargon. Perhaps it was the juryman who sat throughout most of one afternoon with his head buried deep in his hands who prompted him to remark to the court: "Sorry. It is a bit like going through a maze with a hangover."