Why do Irish politicians give character references to sex offenders? Donal O’Keeffe asked the main parties for their current policy on this practice.
Joseph Dempsey, then 61, had already been convicted for the rape of his young nephew Shane, and 15 counts of indecent and sexual assault against him, when a letter of reference from Deputy Seán Ó Fearghaíl was read out in court that day in 2006.
Shane was 24 at the time, and had endured two trials to see his uncle brought to justice for crimes committed when Shane was a small boy. The character reference hit Shane like a hammer blow. Although it was clearly not Ó Fearghaíl’s intent, when Shane saw his local Fianna Fáil and Government TD support his abuser, he was left feeling that Official Ireland was siding with his uncle against him.
The letter, dated 3 February, 2006, read:
To whom it may concern,
I have been asked to provide a character reference for Mr Joe Dempsey of [REDACTED] and I do so in the context of the circumstances in which he finds himself.
I know Mr Dempsey to be a member of a very large, well known and well respected local family.
As a local resident myself and in the course of my constituency work I have been acquainted with Mr Joe Dempsey. In the course of my contacts with him I have never had any reason to question his decency or integrity.
While I am not at all familiar with the circumstances surrounding the crimes of which Mr Dempsey has been convicted, I know that they are grievous in nature and I offer this testimonial not to in any way condone what has happened but simply to illustrate his standing in the community. [Deputy Ó Fearghaíl’s emphasis.]
Seán Ó Fearghaíl TD.
Joseph Dempsey of Monasterevin, Co Kildare, was sentenced to six years in prison, serving three in Castlerea.
Shane Dempsey last week told Philip Boucher-Hayes on RTÉ Radio 1’s Drivetime that the character reference blindsided him and left him feeling intimidated and disbelieved: “For a victim of child abuse, the worst outcome is to be unheard, unbelieved.”
Seán Ó Fearghaíl is now Ceann Comhairle, the chairperson or speaker of the Dáil, and was last month re-elected for a second term. He is considered an effective and popular chair.
We have a long and ignoble history of politicians intervening in court cases. Only last week, Fine Gael Business Minister Heather Humphreys came under pressure over her intercession in a case of alleged animal cruelty.
Looking only at this century, you’ll see some depressing examples of Irish politicians involving themselves in court proceedings without obvious regard for the wellbeing of victims.
In April 2002, Progressive Democrat Junior Minister Bobby Molloy resigned a day after it emerged that his office had attempted to contact by telephone the presiding judge in the case of Patrick Naughton. Naughton raped and abused his daughter over six years, beginning in 1987, when she was nine. Naughton’s sister had written several letters to the judge, and someone in Minister Molloy’s office rang to check whether the judge had received those letters.
Naughton was sentenced to 11 years in prison.
In 2007, Tony Killeen TD (Fianna Fáil) and Pat Breen TD (Fine Gael) sought the early release of a child rapist. Killeen also sought the early release of a murderer.
In April 2008, Labour Party TD Kathleen Lynch apologised for writing a letter testifying to the good character of the parents of then-31-year-old Trevor Casey, on trial for the rape of two teenage sisters. The letter was presented in court by Casey’s defence counsel. Casey was found guilty, and sentenced to 14 years in prison, with one year suspended.
In February 2010, former Green Party leader Trevor Sargent resigned as Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture after it emerged that he had contacted Gardaí in relation to an alleged assault experienced by a constituent.
In 2011, Senator David Norris withdrew briefly from the Presidential campaign when it emerged that he had written a letter pleading clemency for his former partner, Ezra Nawi, convicted for the statutory rape of a 15-year-old boy.
In 2014, Fianna Fáil Niall Collins TD came under fire for sending a letter to a court pleading leniency for a convicted drug dealer.
And then there was Fianna Fáil TD Eamon Ó Cuiv’s 2014 letter on behalf of a drug dealer who had murdered an associate and stored his remains in a fridge freezer.
“We have, since the foundation of the State, been afflicted with a strange phenomenon where constituents write to [politicians] and expect something to be done for them,” Gary Murphy, Professor of Politics at DCU, said last week. “It is a product, I think, of the PR STV electoral system, whereby constituents think they have a personal relationship with those they might, or might not, vote for.”
Shane Dempsey did not initially seek an apology from the Ceann Comhairle, but rather sought a commitment that he would champion a cross-party review of the practice of giving character references to sex offenders.
On Thursday, an unequivocal apology was delivered, late at night, to Shane’s parents’ home.
Deputy Ó Fearghaíl wrote: “My reasons for writing to you now are first and foremost to apologise for the hurt and pain that I have caused to you and your family by providing a reference to your uncle. In writing that reference I did not seek clemency or leniency for the perpetrator of these horrendous acts. I wrote the reference on foot of repeated requests …
“In your media interview you call upon me as Ceann Comhairle to campaign with you to effect a change in the law by preventing members from providing references to convicted child sex abusers.
“The role of Ceann Comhairle is a constitutional one and mandates that the office-holder applies the rules in Dáil Éireann, without fear or favour, and in an impartial manner. Therefore, and out of deference to this office, I cannot engage in campaigning, nor can I actively participate in political matters.
“However, I personally decided in 2006, as a direct result of your case, to adopt a policy in my office of never providing any correspondence in respect of individuals before the courts, except in certain cases of family home repossessions.”
Shane was deeply unhappy with Seán Ó Fearghaíl’s statement, and called the following day for his resignation. Shane’s dissatisfaction stemmed not from Ó Fearghaíl’s apology – which appeared heartfelt and honest – but rather from Ó Fearghaíl’s claim that the constitutional nature of the Ceann Comhairle’s office prevents him from championing any policy change on representatives giving character references to sex offenders.
Dr Conor O’Mahony from UCC’s School of Law told Drivetime that in his view there is no constitutional impediment upon the Ceann Comhairle perhaps facilitating a cross-party review of the practice of Oireachtas members providing character references to sex offenders.
“It might be an unusual thing for the current Ceann Comhairle to do, it might be a departure from how things are normally done, but describing it as unconstitutional would, perhaps, be going a step too far.”
Professor Gary Murphy concurs: “There would be nothing stopping Seán Ó Fearghaíl getting the parties together in private, and actually nothing stopping him doing it in public either.
“His reading of the role of his office as not enabling him to do anything about the entirely sensible suggestion that the practice of giving character references to sex offenders be outlawed amongst members of the Oireachtas is overly defensive in my view.”
It is commonly accepted in legal circles that character references are almost always ignored in court. They are generally not worth the paper upon which they’re written, and judges routinely ignore them. It is easy to imagine why desperate people ask representatives for references, but why do representatives continue to supply them?
Imagine a local politician, asked for a character reference for a local man in court for unspeakable crimes. If they ignore the request, or worse, say no, they will lose forever the votes of that man’s friends and extended family. If, however, they write an entirely meaningless – and worthless – reference, they will always be remembered as a friend who tried to help in a time of need.
Anyone who has read John B Keane’s Letters of a Successful TD knows exactly what that politician will do.
As with many things in Ireland, the fault is in the electorate at least as much in the elected.
One Dublin-based TD told me yesterday that most political interventions – from planning to housing to court cases – are worthless, but “we have a clinic culture in Ireland, and if I don’t do it, the other man or woman will, and you’ll remember it the next time out”.
Until such time as we demand that our politicians outlaw court references for sex offenders, we accept and allow situations where those accused and convicted of heinous crimes ask for court references, and survivors like Shane Dempsey are made to feel that Official Ireland is on the side of those who abuse them.
We all deserve better.
On Monday, I asked the main political parties, and some independents, for a comment on their respective policy on representatives giving references to those accused or convicted of sex offences.
A Fianna Fáil spokesperson told me: “Our view is that public representatives should not be providing character references for people accused of or convicted of such offences.”
A Sinn Féin spokesperson said: “These are criminal justice matters and Sinn Féin’s view is that public representatives should not interfere with these matters in any way.”
The Fine Gael press office declined to comment on this issue.
The Green Party did not respond to repeated requests for a statement.
Social Democrats co-leader Catherine Murphy TD told me that while the party does not have a specific policy on such references: “My own view is that they should never happen. There’s a separation of powers between the legislature and the judiciary, and that should be respected.”
The Labour Party press officer told me Labour does not have an official policy on court references, but said representatives would not be advised to supply them.
People Before Profit did not reply to requests for comment.
Independent Senator Lynn Ruane told me: “I have never and would never give a reference to someone accused of sex offences.”
Independent TD Michael Healy-Rae said: “I have never given a court reference for a sex offender. I have never been asked for one and I never would give one.”