Record damages for Irish billionaire who sued 'Mirror'

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One of Ireland's richest business tycoons has been awarded the highest amount of damages handed down in a libel case in the country's history.

Denis O'Brien, a high-profile billionaire communications magnate, was awarded €750,000 (£508,000) by a Dublin jury, which set a new record in defamation damages.

The size of the award, made against Mirror Group Newspapers, is likely to be the subject of an appeal, especially since the Supreme Court, in considering the same case, had previously indicated that a much lesser award was excessive.

Nonetheless, the outcome in the Dublin High Court is regarded as a conspicuous success for Mr O'Brien in an era when the reputations of many senior politicians and business figures have been battered by allegations of widespread corruption.

Scores of names have been mentioned during the years of corruption hearings in Dublin. This year, controversy exploded around the Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, as allegations surfaced that he had improperly accepted financial help. The controversy has since abated, however, with opinion polls showing that Mr Ahern's standing has, in fact, risen.

In the past decade, Mr O'Brien has made hundreds of millions of euros in deals involving mobile phones, radio stations and other interests. In the libel case, the Irish Mirror admitted the article, which alleged bribery, was untrue and defamatory, so this week's hearings were concerned only with the assessment of damages.

Attention this week focused on a conversation Mr O'Brien is said to have had with communications executive Barry Maloney while running in the Wicklow mountains in 1996. Mr O'Brien was asked why he had told Mr Maloney he had paid a government minister €100,000. He said in court: "I am paying the price for a stupid remark on the mountainside. I admit it was an untruth - it was a way of getting Barry Maloney to pay invoices. I never paid any minister. I never bribed anybody." During the case it was said on Mr O'Brien's behalf that he would give any award to charity.

The jury was not informed that an earlier hearing, which ended with a damages award of €300,000, had been sent back to court by the Supreme Court, which regarded it as "disproportionately high". The Supreme Court said the libel could not be regarded as "coming within the grossest and most serious libels which have come before the courts".

Mr O'Brien, who was described as emotional in court, is an international business player with interests in the Caribbean and elsewhere, and reported ambitions to plunge into the American market on a large scale. A former deputy governor of the Bank of Ireland, he recently bought €43m-worth of shares in the national airline Aer Lingus.

After the case he said: "I am vindicated. It was a very serious libel, it was an outrageous libel and I am happy to have been vindicated."

The director of the National Newspapers of Ireland, Frank Cullen, described the award as "staggering", calling for a reform of the libel law.

Seamus Dooley, of the National Union of Journalists, said the award was disproportionate, given the small circulation of the Irish Mirror.