Thursday 18 December 2014

'I hold my hands up, I made a mistake' - Niall Collins apologises for controversial letter

Philip Ryan, Barry Duggan and Tom Brady

Published 20/06/2014 | 10:54

Niall Collins,Fianna Fail deputy for Limerick at Leinster House yesterday. Picture: Tom Burke
Niall Collins,Fianna Fail deputy for Limerick at Leinster House yesterday. Picture: Tom Burke

FIANNA Fail Justice spokesperson Niall Collins has said he believes he won't be sacked as a result of his controversial decision to lobby a judge on behalf of a drug dealer involved in a criminal trial.

The Limerick TD today vowed to remain on in the justice portfolio, despite admitting that he made a "mistake" by appealing to a judge not to jail a man caught with €17,000 worth of drugs.

The government has turned up the heat on the Fianna Fail politician with several ministers accusing him of interfering with the administration of justice.

Jobs Minister Richard Bruton today described the action as a "serious error" of judgement.

The letter in question was written on headed notepad on behalf of father-of-four Hugo Porter, who is facing jail over the drugs offence.

Speaking on RTE radio this morning, Mr Collins insisted that he wrote the letter out of compassion.

"There was no back door, there was no inappropriate telephone conversation, I didn't call to a judge's front door," he said.

But he admitted that writing the letter was a mistake and vowed not to take such a course of action again.

It shouldn't be done. I for one won't be doing it again… There's no political gain for Niall Collins out of this," he added.

Asked whether he should remain in the justice portfolio, Mr Collins said he has not been asked to resign by party leader Micheal Martin.

"People have to judge me as the party's spokesperson, I've always sought to be fair, reasonable, I've approached the job with the right intentions," he told Sean O'Rourke, adding: "I'm sorry it worked out the way it did."

Yesterday, Micheal Martin broke his silence on the Niall Collins affair after being called on to do so by Taoiseach Enda Kenny.

Mr Kenny said it was "a very serious matter" and insisted a judge should not be contacted by a public representative.

Also yesterday, it emerged a charge against Mr Collins of failing to pay road tax on a vehicle has been withdrawn by the State.

Limerick District Court heard that Mr Collins had paid his tax on-line on the day it was due.

The case was due to go ahead in the court on June 9 last but the State applied for the charge to be struck out.

After initially refusing to comment on Mr Collins' intervention in a criminal court case, Mr Martin ultimately bowed to public pressure.

In a statement issued through his spokesman, the Fianna Fail leader said he spoke with Mr Collins and agreed with the Taoiseach that members of the Oireachtas should not write to the judiciary. Mr Martin said Mr Collins is "absolutely clear on the importance of an independent judiciary".

A spokesman for Mr Martin later confirmed Mr Collins would be remaining in his position as the party's justice spokesman.

Meanwhile, it has also emerged Mr Collins' driver Frank Ryan, a well known Fianna Fail canvasser, also asked Judge Carroll Moran for leniency for Mr Porter in Limerick Circuit Criminal Court.

Mr Ryan - who worked as driver for former Fianna Fail minister Peter Power - had no comment to make yesterday.

When approached in Limerick by the Irish Independent yesterday, Mr Ryan said he had "no comment" when he answered the door of his semi-detached home at St Patrick's Villas, Castleconnell.

In the witness box on Monday, Mr Ryan said: "Hugo has been a terrific father to those four children since their mother died."

Mr Porter and another criminal Alan Lysaght (39) both from Castleconnell, Co Limerick, admitted having €17,500 worth of cannabis for sale or supply on June 24, 2011.

They were arrested after gardai found Porter emerging from a Co Limerick field with a quantity of pre-bagged cannabis ready for sale.

Lysaght was jailed for three years with the final year suspended but Mr Porter's sentencing was adjourned after a letter from Mr Collins was produced to the court.

The letter presented to Judge Carroll last Monday had "Niall Collins TD" emblazoned across the masthead with a stamp of the Irish harp above his name and 'Spokesperson for Justice Fianna Fail' at the bottom.

The handwritten letter, which was written at the end of May in blue ink, began 'Dear Judge'.

At the outset, Mr Collins wrote he had been given an outline of Hugo Porter's circumstances by Mr Ryan.

The short letter dealt primarily with the family background of Hugo Porter and the circumstances in which Porter had found himself after his wife's death. In the final paragraph, Mr Collins wrote: "I urge you to consider imposing a non-custodial sentence" on Hugo Porter.

Porter was given a two-year suspended sentence in 2009 after he was convicted of an assault involving a broken glass. He committed the drugs offence at a time when he was bound to the peace.

The unemployed father also has convictions for road traffic offences including dangerous driving and failure to stop when directed to do so by a garda.

Mr Martin was forced to break his silence about Niall Collins' plea on behalf of a criminal who was caught with €17,000 worth of drugs after Taoiseach Enda Kenny said it demanded an explanation.

Mr Kenny said it was "a very serious matter" and insisted a judge should not be contacted by a public representative.

Also yesterday, it emerged a charge against Mr Collins of failing to pay road tax on a vehicle has been withdrawn by the State.

Limerick District Court heard that Mr Collins had paid his tax on-line on the day it was due.

The case was due to go ahead in the court on June 9 last but the State applied for the charge to be struck out.

After initially refusing to comment on Mr Collins' intervention in a criminal court case, Mr Martin ultimately bowed to public pressure.

In a statement issued through his spokesman, the Fianna Fail leader said he spoke with Mr Collins and agreed with the Taoiseach that members of the Oireachtas should not write to the judiciary. Mr Martin said Mr Collins is "absolutely clear on the importance of an independent judiciary".

A spokesman for Mr Martin later confirmed Mr Collins would be remaining in his position as the party's justice spokesman.

After initially insisting he would not comment as the case was ongoing, Mr Collins admitted writing to a judge on behalf of Hugo Porter (40) who was caught with €17,000 of drugs in Limerick.

Expressing his "regret" for intervening in a criminal trial, he insisted he made the representation due to "compassion and concern" for Mr Porter's four children.

"If my actions suggest anything other than total respect for judicial independence, that is a source of genuine regret," he added. Mr Martin said that "as a basic principle", he does not believe Oireachtas members "should involve themselves in criminal proceedings".

"I understand that in this exceptional case, Niall Collins was acting only on the grounds of compassion for four young children who have already lost one parent in tragic circumstances earlier this year."

Meanwhile, it has also emerged Mr Collins' driver Frank Ryan, a well known Fianna Fail canvasser, also asked Judge Carroll Moran for leniency for Mr Porter in Limerick Circuit Criminal Court.

Mr Ryan - who worked as driver for former Fianna Fail minister Peter Power - had no comment to make yesterday.

When approached in Limerick by the Irish Independent yesterday, Mr Ryan said he had "no comment" when he answered the door of his semi-detached home at St Patrick's Villas, Castleconnell.

In the witness box on Monday, Mr Ryan said: "Hugo has been a terrific father to those four children since their mother died."

Mr Porter and another criminal Alan Lysaght (39) both from Castleconnell, Co Limerick, admitted having €17,500 worth of cannabis for sale or supply on June 24, 2011.

They were arrested after gardai found Porter emerging from a Co Limerick field with a quantity of pre-bagged cannabis ready for sale.

Lysaght was jailed for three years with the final year suspended but Mr Porter's sentencing was adjourned after a letter from Mr Collins was produced to the court.

The letter presented to Judge Carroll last Monday had "Niall Collins TD" emblazoned across the masthead with a stamp of the Irish harp above his name and 'Spokesperson for Justice Fianna Fail' at the bottom.

The handwritten letter, which was written at the end of May in blue ink, began 'Dear Judge'.

At the outset, Mr Collins wrote he had been given an outline of Hugo Porter's circumstances by Mr Ryan.

The short letter dealt primarily with the family background of Hugo Porter and the circumstances in which Porter had found himself after his wife's death. In the final paragraph, Mr Collins wrote: "I urge you to consider imposing a non-custodial sentence" on Hugo Porter.

Porter was given a two-year suspended sentence in 2009 after he was convicted of an assault involving a broken glass. He committed the drugs offence at a time when he was bound to the peace.

The unemployed father also has convictions for road traffic offences including dangerous driving and failure to stop when directed to do so by a garda.

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