DUBLIN, July 17 (Reuters) - Ireland's Supreme Court
cleared the way on Tuesday for two companies to challenge the government's awarding of a mobile phone licence in the 1990s, in what could be one of the biggest claims for damages made against the state.
Comcast International Holdings Incorporated and Persona Digital Telephony Ltd, two of the unsuccessful contenders for the licence in 1995, have said they will allege fraud, corruption and deceit in their case against the state.
Their original high court case was stopped in 2007 after it was deemed to have been inexcusably delayed, but they told the supreme court they had been entitled to wait for the outcome of a judicial inquiry into the awarding of the licence.
The inquiry found last year that a former minister 'insidiously' helped Irish billionaire Denis O'Brien's Esat Digifone company secure the mobile phone licence.
The report said O'Brien, who is also the largest shareholder of publishing group Independent News & Media (INM), made or facilitated payments to then cabinet minister Michael Lowry of 147,000 pounds in Ireland's old pound currency and 300,000 British pounds.
O'Brien said at the time the report was fundamentally flawed
because it was based on the opinions and theories of one judge and said on Tuesday that he very much welcomed the opportunity to vigorously defend these allegations in the High Court.
Lowry, who was deemed to have played a 'profoundly reprehensible' role in the awarding of the licence, said he was confident the decision would be vindicated in court and that there was no evidence that anything illegal had happened.
Persona Digital Telephony Limited is claiming 6.1 million euros in special damages to cover the amount spent on preparing the application, a figure that could be dwarfed by any overall damages, as Esat was sold to British Telecom for 2.3 billion Irish pounds.
'It is certainly potentially one of the largest cases ever against the state,' said James McDermott, a barrister and lecturer in company and contract law at University College Dublin (UCD).
'The under bidder will argue that had the competition been run in an appropriate manner they would have been awarded the contract and not have missed out on the possibility of making profits on the contract.'
Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte said in a statement that the state, which sought an 85 billion euro international bailout in 2010, will contest any claim of liability to pay damages from public funds to the plaintiffs.
(Editing by Padraic Halpin and Tim Pearce) Keywords: IRELAND MOBILEPHONE/COURT
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