A compassionate but clumsy move by Niall Collins
Even if Niall Collins has to step down as penance, let's not go overboard
If there's one thing you can say in Niall Collins's favour, it's that at least the Fianna Fail justice spokesman sent a letter to a judge on entirely altruistic grounds. There was nothing in it for him personally. Not even votes. The family involved in this case don't even live in his constituency.
However clumsy his intervention in asking that Hugo Porter, who was caught with €18,000-worth of cannabis in his possession, not be sent to jail, there's not a single reason to believe that Collins was motivated by anything other than concern for the man's four children who had lost their mother recently to suicide. It's not like Senator David Norris asking an Israeli court for clemency for his former partner after Ezra Nawi was convicted of the statutory rape of a 15-year-old boy.
On the other hand, unlike Senator Norris, Niall Collins did make his intervention in a jurisdiction where his name carries some influence. It's unlikely that Israeli courts give that much weight to what some Joycean scholar from Trinity College thinks, any more than Florida Governor Jeb Bush did when he got a letter from Fine Gael's Gay Mitchell some years ago requesting that a man convicted of two murders at an abortion clinic not be executed. You can imagine the scene in the Governor's office: "Gay who?" Said murderer was duly executed.
Of course, there's no reason to suppose that Judge Carroll Moran was any more impressed by Collins's intervention than the recipients of those letters either; but that doesn't excuse the fact that an Irish politician was trying, for whatever saintly motives, to influence an Irish court. Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, was already compiling a report for the judge on the likely impact of Hugo Porter's incarceration on his four children. That's its job.
The FF man insists he didn't mean to interfere, but what else did he think he was doing when he sent his plea for clemency on personalised notepaper with the words "Niall Collins TD" at the top and "Spokesperson for Justice, Fianna Fail" along the bottom?
More bizarrely still, Collins actually included his photograph with the letter. Why would anyone do that? More to the point, why would Niall Collins do it?
Of all the people one might expect to make such a schoolboy error, Collins isn't one of them. He's a promising and capable politician who has been an effective justice spokesman for Fianna Fail. His career trajectory only looked to be heading one way. Up. What was he thinking?
It's not as if there haven't been enough warnings of the dangers of sending such letters before. Kathleen Lynch was severely criticised for sending a letter testifying to the good character of the parents of a man who raped two teenage sisters in Cork. Green Party TD Trevor Sergeant had to resign as a minister of state after seeking to influence another court case. Progressive Democrats TD Bobby Molloy is the most dramatic casualty, also forced to resign after being accused of interference in the case of Barbara Naughton, a woman raped by her father over a period of nine years. How many times does it have to happen before TDs realise that it simply cannot and should not be done?
Anecdotal evidence suggests that most of them have. The prosecuting counsel in the Hugh Porter case, who asked the judge "not to attach too much weight" to Niall Collins's letter, said the practice was once commonplace but isn't any more; but the fact that another instance has emerged will do nothing to stem suspicions, however unfair, that it's being done on the sly all the time. A phone call here. A whisper in the ear there. It doesn't help either that Niall Collins, as he made the rounds of the radio studios nationally and in Limerick itself, issued one of those half-apologies which raise more questions than they answer.
"If my actions suggest anything other than total respect for judicial independence, that is a source of genuine regret," he declared, in a sentence so diluted by qualifications and circumlocutions that it was practically begging to be translated into plain English. If you're going to apologise, just say so and get it over with. There were even claims from Collins's supporters that his letter should have been kept private under data protection laws, which is nonsense of the highest order. A love letter to your wife is private. A letter to a judge is not. Such disingenuity does his case more harm than the writing of the letter in the first place.
This isn't some minor matter, after all. Porter was caught with a large quantity of drugs; he has a previous conviction for assault; he was bound over to keep the peace at the time he committed the drugs offences; he'd also been in trouble before for dangerous driving. These would normally be grounds to make a custodial sentence not only appropriate but practically inevitable. The other man in the case has already received a three-year prison sentence. It cannot be a rule that, simply because one criminal is a single parent, that the penalties for him should be less severe.
For Niall Collins to even suggest that it should is even more problematic when he himself has, rightly, taken such a tough line on crime, and when he was so critical of former Justice Minister, Alan Shatter, for undermining the morale of the guards by cutting back services in rural areas at a time of rising crime. It hardly helps Garda morale to have criminals let off on the basis of pleas of leniency by influential people either. At the FF ard fheis last year, Collins even accused Shatter of having "poisoned the relationship between the two most important benches of State, the Government and the Judiciary".
He went on: "I have introduced legislative proposals to Dail Eireann to ensure that sentences match the crime and victims can be assured by the fact that crime will cost." The irony cannot be lost on him.
It may be that Collins had no option in the coming days than to consider his position. If he'd been a member of the Government, there's no doubt the opposition would consider it a resigning matter. That he is spokesperson on justice may even turn out to be his biggest downfall. In any other position, the disparity between what is said and what is done would not be so glaring.
But even if he does have to step down in penance for his error, there's no need for Collins's critics to go overboard about the incident. This isn't on the same scale as the Bobby Molloy controversy. Cannabis possession is not the same as rape or child abuse. Nor was there the slightest attempt at secrecy. The letter was presented by the defence in open court. His critics can opportunistically manufacture it into a scandal all they like, but they can't make the story add up to anything more than a clumsy and misjudged move from a man who was only trying, for no personal gain, to do the compassionate thing. He may have to pay the price for that, but his good character emerges from it wholly intact.