Friday 19 December 2014

Politicians have no place interfering in justice system

Published 20/06/2014 | 02:30

Niall Collins
Niall Collins

AND so the hunter becomes the hunted. After the best part of a year on the trail of Alan Shatter, Niall Collins is now the prey.

The Irish Independent's revelation that Collins wrote to a judge asking him not to jail a convicted drug dealer has raised serious question marks over his future as Fianna Fail's justice spokesman.

Having endured him turning the screw when it came to Alan Shatter, the government was quick to stick the boot in, with the Taoiseach leading the charge.

Collins' actions were "very serious" and constituted, Enda Kenny pronounced, a "direct intervention in the administration of justice".

Revenge, it seems, is a dish best served slightly warm. There is a bit of history between Kenny and Collins. Two years ago, the Fianna Fail man attacked the Taoiseach's "outrageous failure of judgment" for writing to the Minister for Justice in relation to a family law case. Now the boot is on the other foot. But, notwithstanding the fact that the Taoiseach should have spared us all – and his office – another venture into party political mud-slinging, Collins has a problem.

It's not an open and shut issue. The background circumstances do seem to be tragic. And, given that the man in question, Hugo Porter, isn't even a constituent, it does seem Collins was genuinely moved by the plight of Porter's four children and what might happen to them if he is sentenced to prison.

Collins, a savvy politician, would have surely known that this would become public and would draw criticism, yet still opted to write the letter on behalf of Porter. That would seem to confirm his bona fides.

Collins' intervention is still a "huge lapse of judgement" to use Lucinda Creighton's term.

Particularly as spokesman for justice, Collins needs to be utterly beyond reproach rather than leaving himself open to charges of seeking to influence a judge's decision.

The fact the conviction involves drug dealing, and that Porter had previously received a two-year suspended prison sentence for assault where he produced a broken glass, also goes against Collins.

At the time of writing, it looks 50-50 whether the Limerick deputy will survive as justice spokesman. There's no doubt a smarting government has him in its sights and the next 48 hours – and whether momentum builds against him – will be crucial. Because, mitigating circumstances or not, the bottom line is that politicians simply should not get involved in any court case, even pre-sentencing character submissions.

That of course is easier said than done. Politicians often win and lose seats based on what they deliver personally to constituents. With a handful of votes often determining the outcome of elections, the pressure to accede to voters' wishes is enormous.

The practice of making interventions in court cases is far rarer now than ten or 20 years ago. But that doesn't mean that TDs aren't asked on a reasonably regular basis.

For that reason, TDs need to be protected from themselves and, at times, their constituents.

You can't legally bar TDs from making such submissions – it is open to any citizen to do so. But there would be nothing to stop the Committee of Procedures and Privileges of the Oireachtas – or some similar body – drawing up a code of practice strongly cautioning against such interventions.

That would remove all ambiguity for TDs who might be tempted to intervene for electoral reasons or on genuinely compassionate grounds. Crucially, the ability to cite regulations or a code of conduct would also make it easier for them to say 'no' to constituents – something – let's face it – most politicians are bad at doing.

Regardless of Collins' fate, the days when it's acceptable for politicians to get involved in court cases are over. It's time for the Oireachtas to put that in writing.

Shane Coleman is the presenter of the Sunday Show on Newstalk 106-108FM.

Irish Independent

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