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Day of high drama as ex-Sinn Féin councillor Jonathan Dowdall turns State’s witness

Former councillor faces ‘grim’ future in witness protection, defence counsel tells CCJ

Former Sinn Féin councillor Jonathan Dowdall remains on bail for his role in the Regency Hotel shooting. In truth, regardless of the sentence he receives, he will likely never be a free man again.

The life of the 44-year-old, a father of four, changed forever last week when he made a formal statement to gardaí implicating his former co-accused in the 2016 attack and agreeing to give evidence against them.

Several things then happened in very quick succession.

A risk assessment of Dowdall was carried out by the Garda Witness Security Team and arrangements put in place for his entry into the witness protection programme. He was then taken to the Special Criminal Court, where he pleaded guilty to assisting a criminal association, a significantly less serious charge than the murder count he had originally faced.

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By agreement, Dowdall and his family are now in protective custody, meaning they are held in a secure location with armed officers nearby at all times. This is how he arrived at the Criminal Courts of Justice (CCJ) on Monday to be sentenced on the new charge, one which his father Patrick Dowdall (65) has also pleaded guilty to.

In his mitigation plea, defence counsel Michael O’Higgins frequently returned to the impact Jonathan Dowdall’s decision to turn State’s evidence will have on him and his family.

He will live in exile, constantly looking over his shoulder and watching what he says to strangers. Trips home may be possible at some point but only in the most covert, anonymous circumstances and only for brief periods, the barrister said.

“It is a very, very heavy burden,” he said. “It’s like taking your life and standing it on its head.”

Any decision to return to Ireland will amount to Dowdall taking his life in his hands, said O’Higgins, who summed up what his client’s future would be like using a single word: “grim”.

The argument seemed to find some favour with Mr Justice Tony Hunt, who commented that life for Dowdall after this will be “very difficult”.

Given all of this, it would not be unreasonable to impose an entirely suspended sentence on the father and son, defence counsel argued. This was despite their previous convictions for abducting and torturing a man who called to their home in 2016, which resulted in a 10-year sentence for the younger Dowdall and a seven-year term for his father. The incident was a case of the men taking the law into their own hands, the court was told, as they believed the victim was trying to scam them.

These are highly unusual proceedings, O’Higgins observed a few times. There was ample evidence of this throughout Monday’s hearing. Those attending the CCJ were greeted on the steps by two officers armed with submachine guns — a deliberate show of force by the Garda to anyone with a mind to disrupt proceedings — while members of the force’s public order unit roamed the interior rotunda.

The venue for the sentence hearing was changed at the last minute, from court 11 to court 17 one floor up. And when the two accused appeared, they came through an entrance usually reserved for the jury.

Both Dowdalls appeared tired and anxious throughout the hearing, with neither looking to the back of the court where relatives of Regency attack victim David Byrne were seated. These included Byrne’s mother Sadie and his sister Joanne Kavanagh, who is the wife of Kinahan associate Thomas “Bomber” Kavanagh. Around her neck she wore a locket containing a photograph of her late brother.

For all the build-up, the evidence offered against the Dowdalls during the sentencing hearing was very brief. Det Sgt Patrick O’Toole told the court Jonathan drove his father to the Regency where he paid for a room for the night and picked up key cards. They then brought these key cards to another person connected to the Hutch gang and the room was used that night by one of the gunmen ahead of the shooting. That was, apparently, where their involved began and ended.

Why would the Dowdalls travel to a hotel and book a room in the family name?

O’Higgins had a theory to explain this. The masterminds wanted to divert blame for the attack from the Hutch gang. The involvement of Jonathan, who had republican links, would help to divert suspicion to republican paramilitaries and away from Dublin gangland.

In support of this, he observed that the only gunman who did not try to disguise himself was Kevin Murray, a Northern Ireland man with links to the IRA. Murray, who had a terminal illness at the time, made sure he was seen on camera brandishing his weapon.

The judge called it the “false flag theory”. The detective garda would go only as far as to say it was one of the possibilities they considered.

The court adjourned sentencing of the Dowdalls until October 17th. The father and son were taken from court in separate garda vans.

Ninety minutes later Gerry Hutch arrived at the CCJ in a convoy of black SUVs, unmarked aside from the flashing blue lights in their grilles. It looked more like the motorcade of a US president than a prisoner escort.

The 59-year-old appeared upstairs in court a few minutes later for what was supposed to be the first day of his trial for Byrne’s murder. But the events of the morning had thrown a spanner in the works. Jonathan Dowdall’s decision meant there was “substantial new disclosure in the case” and this would require a “fundamental reappraisal of the defence strategy”, his barrister said.

Hutch listened through a pair of headphones connected to a hearing aid. This legal team asked for, and were granted, an adjournment until at least next Monday.

With that, the only remaining job was to ask the court to drop the murder charge against Jonathan Dowdall.

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher is Crime Correspondent of The Irish Times