Niall Collins, a man of many sides
How can an outspoken opponent of the crime gangs have sought leniency for a convicted drug dealer?
IT was a cold, wet November night in Limerick six years ago and a gunman operating on the instructions of a feared drugs gang shot an innocent man dead as he walked home from a friend's house.
Shane Geoghegan, 28, who played rugby with Garryowen, was a hero who represented all that was good about life in Limerick and was murdered by a drugs gang.
He was also a friend and team-mate of Fianna Fail TD Niall Collins. They played rugby together. Niall Collins had just been elected to the Dail for the first time the year earlier and immediately denounced those responsible for the horrific gun attack as "callous bastards".
His comments in the immediate aftermath of the murder were met with universal approval by all left reeling along Shannonside.
"It is the outrage of outrages. Shane Geoghegan was a very genuine and nice guy. These crime gangs who are involved in the feud were knocking each other off but now it has gone out into the wider community and that is a big worry for people."
Just over a week later, he went even further in the Dail. "I compliment the work of the Garda Siochana in Limerick city and county, which have excellent detection and success rates. As a TD representing county Limerick, I am aware that the crime initiated by gangs in Limerick city affects the entire county.
"These gangs supply the drug trade in the county and many of them live in areas of the county outside the city.
"Many of the communities I represent are fearful that anyone in the county could suffer the same fate as Shane Geoghegan. This fate could befall anyone anywhere in Ireland.
"The house should have a serious debate on some of the sentences being handed down in the courts because many members of the public believe sentencing is too lenient.
"The murder of Shane Geoghegan was an attack on middle Ireland. However, middle Ireland is the market for the gangs who supply cocaine, heroin and ecstasy. As with those who shot him, those who snort lines of cocaine, take ecstasy or use heroin, have Shane Geoghegan's blood on their hands," Collins said.
Last August, after John Dundon – who ordered the botched gun attack on Geoghegan – was sentenced to life imprisonment, Niall Collins was again strong in this newspaper on what needed to be done to eradicate the scourge of narcotics.
"Justice cannot just stop with the sentencing of John Dundon. The bloodstained chronicle of terror that the Dundons and other feuding gangs inflicted on Limerick is a grim reminder of the challenges the community faced in overcoming their reign of terror and the pressing need to ensure it never gets a grip again. Bouncer Brian Fitzgerald refused to allow drug dealers in the nightclub he was working at and was savagely gunned down as a result.
"Taking a life was a casual matter to the Dundon gang, but it is the prevalence of drugs and the ill-gotten gains they generate that continue to drive on gangland crime. The battle against drugs still goes on in every village, town and city in Ireland. But it needs real resources to have an impact," Collins wrote.
Niall Collins is very popular in Limerick and is seen as a face of new Fianna Fail, but less than a year after John Dundon was sentenced, he has adopted a unique stance on a drug dealer who has other criminal convictions and is no stranger to the courts, gardai or prison. The minimum mandatory sentence awaiting Hugo Porter of St Patrick's Villas, Castleconnell, Co Limerick, after he was caught with €17,500 worth of cannabis in 2011 is 10 years, before mitigating factors are considered. This mandatory sentence was a law introduced by Fianna Fail Justice Minister John O'Donoghue in 1999.
Niall Collins wrote his letter on behalf of Porter to Judge Carroll Moran – who has presided over major Limerick trials for well over a decade. Judge Moran has made it well known to all that the Oireachtas has directed through the bench that offences involving drugs worth more than €13,000 should carry a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison, which can be reduced, often substantially, when mitigating factors apply.
Porter was caught emerging from a field with the bagged drugs ready for sale.
The court heard that Porter and his accomplice were acting for others and had a "tick list" for distribution of drugs.
At the time he was serving a suspended two-year sentence and bound to the peace after he headbutted a man in a Clare pub and then went to confront him with a piece of broken glass. Prior to this, he received a six month prison sentence for motoring offences in Limerick in 2006.
Niall Collins said his letter – an act he will not repeat – was on compassionate grounds for the sake of Porter's four young children who have been left without a mother.