AS the contents of the letter which Niall Collins wrote seeking leniency for a convicted drug dealer are revealed for the first time, the Limerick TD looks to have survived the political storm and insists it has been “business as normal” this week.
Since details of the letter emerged, Deputy Collins has been censured by his party leader Micheál Martin and has faced opposition calls to step down as the Fianna Fail spokesman on Justice with Minister Richard Bruton describing the writing of the letter as “totally inappropriate”.
There have been calls, locally, for him to resign with Sinn Fein’s Maurice Quinlivan, describing him as the “Homer Simpson of Irish politics”.
The handwritten letter was put forward as mitigation by lawyers representing Hugo Porter, aged 40, of St Patrick’s Villa’s, Castleconnell who pleaded guilty, to possession of quantities of cannabis and cannabis resin, worth almost €18,000, for the purpose of sale or supply.
In the letter, which was written on headed paper and which included Mr Collins’ photograph and the Fianna Fail logo, he states that Mr Porter “is a completely changed person” as a result of the “tragic death of his partner and mother of his four children” earlier this year.
Mr Collins concludes the letter by asking the judge to consider not jailing the father-of-four “for the sake of his children”.
The Taoiseach Enda Kenny described the writing of the letter as “a very serious matter” and insisted that judges should not be contacted by public representatives.
“I think this is an issue where not only just a public representative but a shadow minister for justice has written directly to a judge seeking to influence his decision,” he said.
Responding to the criticism, Mr Collins insisted he wrote the letter on compassionate grounds due to the family circumstances of the accused man, whose wife died in tragic circumstances earlier this year.
“The way I did it was very up front and it was the normal course of events in this regard. I prepared a submission, I gave it to the defence council and he presented it to the judge in the normal process in open court,” he told Live 95FM’s Limerick Today programme.
In addition to a possible prison sentence for the drugs offences, Mr Porter also faces the possibility of having to serve a two year prison sentence which was suspended in 2009 after he pleaded guilty to a ‘glassing’ offence in county Clare.
In the wake of the controversy, Mr Collins said he now accepts it was a mistake to write the letter and that he would not be doing so again.
“The way this has played out, it’s obviously not what I would have intended and would I do it again? Of course I wouldn’t. I’m not the first (politician) to have done it but I’m sure I will be the last to engage in it from a political point of view,” he said.
In a statement, the Fianna Fail leader, Michael Martin, 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” but that despite the controversy over the letter he would be continuing in his role as the party’s spokesman on justice.
Mr Collins confirmed that he and Mr Martin had spoken about the matter saying: “Obviously there are none of us happy with the fallout in relation to it and he obviously asked me not to do it again. He has spoken to all of our parliamentary party just to remind people not to do it again.”
Mr Collins insists he respects the independence of sentencing judges and that he was not trying to influence the administration of justice by writing the letter. “Members of the judiciary are independent, they are professional and they are independent in that they can make up their own minds,” he said.
Meanwhile, speaking in Limerick this week, the Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan said he believes the controversy over the letter has been “adequately dealt with” by all concerned.
“The Taoiseach and the leader of Fianna Fail Micheál Martin I thought dealt adequately with this issue. I don’t expect it to be the practice in the future and I think there would be universal support for that position in Leinster House,” he said.
Deputy Collins has played down the controversy which erupted over the letter denying he was at the centre of a political storm.
“I don’t know would I describe it as that, I don’t know how you would describe it really. These things are all part of the job I suppose really, you know,” he said.
According to reports in the national media, both Mr Porter and Frank Ryan, who gave evidence in support of him during the circuit court proceedings, declined to comment on the matter, which will be finalised in October.
Re: Hugo Porter, St Patricks Villas, Castleconnell, Co Limerick
I have come to know Mr Hugo Porter through my friend Mr Frank Ryan, who is presenting you this reference.
Since committing the offence before the Court now, his family circumstances have changed due to the tragic death of his partner and mother of his four children.
He is now the sole parent of his children and is entirely dedicated to this responsibility. This I have witnessed myself at first hand.
In my view he is a completely changed person and I am asking you to consider a non-custodial sentence for the sake of his children.