Clamour for Niall Collins’s political head has been disproportionate

Opinion: Politicians shouldn’t rush to judgment

‘Niall Collins’s  difficulties were compounded by the fact he is his party’s justice spokesman.’ Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons / The Irish Times

‘Niall Collins’s difficulties were compounded by the fact he is his party’s justice spokesman.’ Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons / The Irish Times

Sat, Jun 21, 2014, 15:28

Niall Collins was, on balance, correct in apologising for a letter he sent on behalf of a convicted drug dealer. In the circumstances, if he thought it through, it was inappropriate given his position as Fianna Fáil’s justice spokesman.

In this instance the defence barrister drew the court’s attention to the constituent’s unfortunate circumstance: that the dealer was the sole carer of four children following the death by suicide of their mother earlier this year. The question is was it appropriate or necessary for the Fianna Fáil justice spokesman to do the same. The answer is no; and he apologised for it yesterday.

But there is something that is at least a little commendable in what was done. The man was not a constituent and there was no political gain for Collins in writing the letter. The four children also have rights under the Constitution and under law. Their mother died this year and the question of their their welfare and their care is not an irrelevant one. It would be impossible for anyone except the most bitter cynic not to believe Collins’s motivation was compassionate, driven by concern for the children. But like so many politicians before who have written such letters, and made representations, he had not fully thought through the consequences.

The man was convicted of being in possession for sale or supply of cannabis with a value of over €18,000. It’s not a minor offence, but it is certainly not egregious in nature. Unfortunately there are numerous examples of politicians who have made representations on behalf of convicted rapists, and have been pilloried for it when the knowledge became public.

FF justice spokesman Bobby Molloy was forced to resign after seeking temporary release for a rapist; Kathleen Lynch issued a

full apology after writing a letter supporting the family (and I have no doubt they were decent) of a rapist who was eventually sentenced to 14 years in prison. Collins’s difficulties were compounded by the fact he is his party’s justice spokesman. Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore overcriticised him, in my opinion, but was correct in saying that status added an extra dimension to it.

However, the clamour for Collins’s political head in the past two days has been typical of the recent tropes we have seen in the media, social media and in the world of politics. It has been distorted, disproportionate, Pavlovian – shooting from the hip and knee-jerk if both those things are simultaneously possible.

Among those whose responses were disproportionate was Taoiseach Enda Kenny. And irony of ironies, the politician who challenged his overstridency and populism was Fianna Fáil’s John McGuinness – no stranger to populism and hyberbole. Aithníonn ciaróg ciaróg eile.

The most over-the-top critique came from Sinn Féin councillor in Limerick Maurice Quinlivan, who is normally proportionate enough in his pronouncements. He said Collins should consider his position. And the tenor of his release was essentially condemnation of, and no mercy for, drug dealers.

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