Saturday 27 December 2014

Sarah Carey: Is there a politician left who’ll be brave enough to show compassion for an unfortunate case?

Published 20/06/2014 | 08:58

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

"The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth like the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blest, it blesseth him that gives, and him that takes." - The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare

There’s a thriving industry in Ireland.

Using the media as its retail point, it sells masochism and national self-loathing by the bucketful. Marketing cynicism to a people crushed by stress and despair, the customer base is ripe.

The salesmen, for they are mainly men -  mostly old, bitter and cranky -  are not short of acolytes. They are to be found amongst the hacks and Independent politicians who believe they are so wonderfully clever they should be running the country.

Alas the former are too scared to run for office and the latter too scared to take it lest they be required to make a hard decision. And yes Stephen Donnelly, that includes you.

So, enraged by the lack of power to which they feel entitled, they content themselves by undermining those who get on with the dreary business of running the country.

One day, it’s the onslaught against the Banking Inquiry before it even begins its work. The next it’s attacking a perfectly decent politician for behaving in a perfectly decent manner. And this fella isn’t even in government! As if there weren’t enough targets.

Yes, it’s poor Niall Collins’s turn to take a spin in the public stocks.

Fianna Fail’s Justice spokesperson, whom I’ve never met but seems to be a reasonable sort of chap, must take his flogging for daring to offend those who make a living from being offended.

What is his crime? He asked for clemency for a convict. He asked for mercy for the four innocent children who’d lost their mother and face the prospect of their father being jailed. Poor Mr Collins took pity on this family.

And God love him he didn’t realise that what he did, even if it was legal, ethical, transparent, and entirely above board, would enrage the cold-hearted misery guts that appoint themselves judge and jury of the political class.

The same crowd who berated the priests for reading sinners from the altar now read a legitimately elected TD from their altars online and on air for behaving in a truly Christian spirit and asking for mercy.

Our justice system for all its flaws has at its core a number of principals.

Once convicted a judge decides upon a sentence that takes into account both the crime and the criminal. The offence incurs a penalty, known in the business as Just Deserts.

But the type of offender, as well as the offence, counts too. In what’s called “risk-based” sentencing the judge is allowed to consider issues of mitigation, one being family circumstances.

Though sentencing for risk is more just, the media has politicians cowed into demanding a greater emphasis on “just deserts”. Any politician seen to be defending a reduction in jail time for a convict is a brave one indeed.

If this were a woman being jailed and the father was gone, people might be more understanding, but alas fathers are either dead or deadbeat in the land of underclass reportage. Mr Collins is on the wrong side.

Of course that's only part of his supposed wrong-doing. We’re asked to suspect something sinister in the act of a politician writing to a court requesting mitigation. The accusation is that this is underhand; interfering; applying undue influence; that it’s just wrong. But why?

Sentencing hearings often include pleas of mitigation and letters of recommendation from public figures, from priests to doctors to employers.

The process itself, where the letters are presented by a barrister or a solicitor is completely transparent and a core part of the system – just as fundamental and fair as a victim impact statement. Why can’t a politician take part in that process too?

Aren’t we always assured that judges are high-minded professionals immune to public comment? It’s juries who are protected from influence, direct or indirect, because they lack the legal training of the judges. Judges are appointed for life and thus need not fear retribution.

As a democratically elected politician it is not merely Niall Collins’ right but his obligation to give good example and a moral lead. But of course, Michael Martin caved into the mob.

When an opportunity presented itself to stand up for the right of politicians to represent all their constituents, criminals and their children included, he should have taken it. Now what is the consequence?

Is there a politician left who’ll be brave enough to show compassion for an unfortunate case?

I want a country where mercy is a quality bravely practiced and lauded by everybody, including the political class. And if Collins does become a future Minister for Justice, I hope he will carry those instincts with him. The country will be the better for it.

Irish Independent

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