News Fionnan Sheahan

Saturday 20 September 2014

Martin's lack of leadership during Collins letter row must be a worry for Fianna Fail

Published 21/06/2014 | 02:30

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JOHN Deasy was sacked as opposition justice spokesman for smoking a fag. Niall Collins wrote a letter to a judge on behalf of a drug dealer appealing for him not to be put in prison and stays on as opposition justice spokesman.

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Back in the early days of the smoking ban a decade ago, Mr Deasy was Fine Gael's justice spokesman and lit up on three occasions in the Dail Members' Bar.

Enda Kenny dismissed him the following day.

The rationale was that a legislator had to show a good example in enforcing the ban, especially as potential future Justice Minister and the opposition figure tasked with holding the Government to account on matters of law and order.

Mr Collins is a similar type of opposition justice spokesman to Mr Deasy, adopting a combative style and demanding answers from ministers.

Through the garda scandals, he has attained a high profile and has been effective in probing the Government's stance.

He is also viewed as one of the most talented members of the Fianna Fail frontbench and a future party leader.

Mr Collins has expressed his regret at his actions in writing a letter to a judge and says he was acting only on the grounds of compassion for four young children who have already lost one parent in tragic circumstances earlier this year.

"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.

Mr Collins said he had not been asked to resign by Fianna Fail 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 RTE's Sean O'Rourke, adding: "I'm sorry it worked out the way it did."

Mr Collins will stay on as justice spokesman.

It's not as if Mr Martin has so many star performers on his frontbench that he has a ready-made replacement.

The backlash he suffered as a result of his actions will be yet another example to fellow TDs not to write letters on behalf of individuals involved in court cases.

Just because a constituent asks them to do something doesn't make it right.

TDs have to learn to say no.

Mr Martin agrees that "as a basic principle", he does not believe Oireachtas members "should involve themselves in criminal proceedings".

But he is retaining Mr Collins as his justice spokesman.

He will have to take it on the chin when those he criticises in the future will throw his behaviour on this occasion back in his face.

Rebuilding credibility will take some time.

What is most distressing about Mr Martin's stance is not his decision to stand by Mr Collins, but the lack of leadership he showed when the matter first came to light. Mr Martin and Fianna Fail went running for cover after his justice spokesman's actions were revealed.

"The party is not going to comment on it at this time either because the court case is ongoing," a spokesperson said on Wednesday night.

Attempts by certain figures in Fianna Fail to suggest Mr Collins' actions were a private matter and therefore nobody's business were contemptible.

A TD is a TD 24-7-365 – not when it suits them. When a TD writes a letter on headed paper, they are writing that letter in their capacity as a member of the Dail. Mr Martin adopted the old school attitude of keeping the head down and hoping the controversy would blow over.

He was wrong.

Mr Martin behaved in a cowardly fashion by failing to emerge in public until yesterday to explain his position and support Mr Collins in person.

Instead, he hid behind his spin doctors, only issuing a statement after Taoiseach Enda Kenny's demand for an explanation.

Fianna Fail's response only came after the Government turned up the heat on the party with several ministers accusing Mr Collins of interfering with the administration of justice.

Even the customarily mild-mannered Jobs Minister Richard Bruton described the action as a "serious error".

Mr Martin took an entire 48 hours to take his head out of the sand and realise the problem wasn't going to go away.

Hardly Fianna Fail Nua – more like same old Fianna Fail.

Mr Martin promised there would be a change in approach to the way the party did politics, but there is precious little evidence here.

Mr Collins showed an error of judgment, which he now regrets and will learn from.

Mr Martin's failure to man up and display some leadership credentials is less forgivable.

Fionnan Sheahan

Irish Independent

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