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Why the only thing Michaella McCollum is truly regretful about is that she was caught

After serial interviews we are none the wiser how the Tyrone drug mule ended up in jail, writes Gail Walker

Published 24/08/2016

Michaella McCollum
Michaella McCollum

When drug mule Michaella McCollum was first released from her Peruvian jail in April, many were quick to condemn the Dungannon girl. After just three years in a cell for attempting to smuggle £1.5m of cocaine, she'd emerged looking like a younger version of Hollywood's Helen Hunt and treated to the softly, softly treatment in an RTE interview.

Yet some - myself included - also added the caveat that, while the 23-year-old certainly didn't come across as a penitent example of sin and redemption, she was young, had committed a grave error of judgment and deserved to be given a chance to make amends and start over.

Alas, since Michaella arrived back in Northern Ireland, she seems hell-bent on giving her fiercest critics justification for their ire. Or, to put it another way, the jury was out, but they are now shuffling back into the courtroom with grim looks on their face. How could they not? One expects true contrition to involve genuine regret and some semblance of trying to make amends for harm done.

But what have we had from Michaella and her supporters? First of all, there was the "Welcome Home" party at the family home, complete with champagne and balloons, the atmosphere of which struck many as more comparable to the return of a local hero than a convicted criminal.

Lord Morrow expressed the concern of many when he said that she appeared to be being treated as a "minor celebrity", adding: "A question which remains is whether her return will be followed by attempts to remain in the public eye, or even to profit from the notoriety she achieved with her crimes."

Of course, it would strike many as quite simply unjust if Michaella - simply by virtue of her notoriety - were to show that crime, no matter how callous, could pay if you are a pretty 23-year-old with a new blonde hair-do, plenty of attitude and the nerve to brazen it out.

And what has happened? In the space of a just a few days she has given extensive interviews to the Irish Mail on Sunday and the Sunday Mirror. Hardly the actions of a penitent young woman who just wants to put her "mistake" behind her and fade away from the spotlight into an ordinary, fulfilling life.

On the contrary, they seem like the calculated actions of a wannabe trying to raise her profile and carve out a niche for herself. After all, who knows what might turn up? An autobiography, with film rights? A stint on reality TV?

Any remorse voiced in the interviews is of the automatic pilot nature - words uttered before getting on with the business of relentless self-promotion. So, while there are expressions of regret, Michaella never really gets around to explaining away all those lies about "kidnap threats" and "drug lords".

Perhaps, it would be a too-painful reminder that we should treat with caution anything that comes out of her mouth.

The only vital emotion that comes via these interviews (one wonders if McCollum was paid and, if so, is she planning to donate her fees to drug charities?) is a kind of perverse pride.

How else to do you explain her recounting of going into prison a "bullied white girl" only to end up "top dog" in her wing; how she was a successful entrepreneur, making - in prison terms - a lot of money running a beauty salon; how she cleverly bribed a prison guard to get her a mobile phone; how she had her own cleaner. Michaella did yoga. She won dance competitions and couldn't resist boasting: "We won almost every single one. We were foreigners and we danced their national dance better than the Peruvians actually did - that's why they would get so p***** off, because we'd always win."

You could say all this shows that she is a survivor, using her wits and strength of character to get through her ordeal. Or you can say it sounds like grandstanding.

And, oh yes, she got 500 love letters while in prison. Indeed, her prison psychologist, Marco, was obsessed with her, so much so that when she rejected his overtures, he attempted to stop her early release.

This doesn't sound like remorse to me. Not anywhere near it, in fact. Yes, she is sorry she was caught. Sorry, she had to live in a dirty, stinking prison in unbearable heat with awful food. But "sorry" as you and I understand it? Nah. Her sorrow reads like the cleverly crafted PR statements of philandering politicians. While taking "responsibility completely" for smuggling drugs, she insists: "I'm not a bad person. Yes, I made a mistake and I did something wrong, but I'm not somebody who deserves to rot in jail for the rest of my life."

Note the red herring - no one wanted her to spend the rest of her life in prison, but, equally, no one wants to see a drugs mule being treated like a Celebrity Big Brother contestant. Just as predictably Michaella now wants to serve as warning to other young people: "I thought it was totally innocent just experimenting with drugs on holiday and look where it put me."

Look indeed - on the front pages of a couple of papers, posing in a rather tight black top and, in another shot, in a fetching pink wrap against the backdrop of a picturesque old ruin. Prim, yet sexy. Sad, but sassy. A kind of gangsta Enya, if you will.

That doesn't seem like sorrow. And it doesn't look like justice either.

And, weirdly, multiple interviews and all, we are none the wiser as to how Michaella actually ended up where she did and who was behind her being there.

Who ran her? Who were her "handlers"? It's clear that neither the police in Peru nor any of her interviewers are going to get close to that mystery.

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