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Give Me a Crash Course in... the witness protection programme

The decision of Jonathan Dowdall to give prosecution evidence in the trial of Gerry Hutch puts the spotlight on a rarely used programme

Why is everyone suddenly talking about the witness protection programme?

On Monday, the Special Criminal Court heard former Sinn Féin councillor Jonathan Dowdall has agreed to give prosecution evidence in the trial of Gerry Hutch, who is accused of the murder of David Byrne in the infamous 2016 Regency Hotel shooting. As part of the deal, Dowdall is being assessed for admission to witness protection, or the Witness Security Programme (WSP) as it’s official known. If he is admitted, he will be relocated to another country, almost certainly an English-speaking one, but only after he serves whatever sentence is handed down for his role in the attack; Dowdall has pleaded guilty to helping to book a hotel room used by one of the gunman and is to be sentenced on October 17th.

Why does Ireland need a witness protection programme?

It was set up in 1997 in response to the murder of journalist Veronica Guerin. Administered by the Attorney General’s office and run by the Garda Crime and Security Branch, the WSP was a response to increasingly ruthless and well-organised criminal gangs which had no compunction about targeting people who might give evidence against them. It was first offered to two men willing to give evidence in the trial of Guerin’s alleged killer, John Gilligan. He was acquitted of murder but convicted of drug dealing and the two witnesses have not been heard from since.

So can anyone who wants a fresh start sign up?

First you have to have evidence of a serious crime, evidence which no one else can provide and which would significantly assist the prosecution. Second, you must be to be at serious risk of harm as a result of giving that evidence. And third, you must be suitable for the programme. In other words, gardaí have to be confident you’ll abide by the conditions they set and not, for example, suddenly start visiting old friends or posting about your new home online.

That doesn’t sound too bad.

As Dowdall’s defence barrister pointed out last Monday, people in the programme usually face a grim future in permanent exile, constantly looking over their shoulder and worried about saying something to give away their past. Financial assistance is provided, as is training, drug rehabilitation and psychological supports if needed. But there is no big payout. Participants are set up with roughly the same standard of living as they were used to in Ireland; if they were on social welfare here, they get a similar amount. It can be a bleak life, compounded by guilt and worry about leaving family members back home.


How many people have been through it?

We don’t know for sure but probably fewer than 20. Every few years, the courts hear from a witness who has agreed to give evidence in return for protection. These are invariably in cases before the non-jury Special Criminal Court, since if someone is willing to target a witness they’d most likely have no issue targeting a jury. One such case was the murder of dissident republican Peter Butterly in 2013. David Cullen admitted to possessing the gun used in the shooting but turned State’s witness in order to avoid a life sentence. He gave evidence against several members of the gang before disappearing into the programme.

Do people ever come out?

Not often. Generally people will remain under protection indefinitely, even after financial supports are withdrawn. The only exception is if someone decides they don’t want to take part any more. Gardaí will advise them they are taking a huge risk by leaving the programme but that ultimately it is their choice.

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher is Crime and Security Correspondent of The Irish Times