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Witness protection: A life of exile, anxiety and poverty

‘You have to remember, the only people who agree to go into it are those in a really desperate situation’

Protection from your enemies, a steady income and a new home abroad, maybe even somewhere sunny and beachside; on the face of it, witness protection doesn’t sound like a bad deal.

That’s perhaps what Jonathan Dowdall, who has turned State’s witness against Gerry Hutch in the Regency Hotel murder trial, was thinking when he first asked gardaí about the programme in April of last year. It has no doubt since been explained to him that the reality of the Witness Security Programme, as it is officially called, is far different.

“It’s horrendous. I honestly wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. You have to remember, the only people who agree to go into it are those in a really desperate situation,” said one source with knowledge of the programme.

Another recalled a participant in the programme who, when his handler went to check up on him, was found to have no food in his fridge “except for a stick of butter”.


Although the programme, which started in 1997, is not set out in any legislation, there are strict rules governing its operation.

One is the “like-for-like” rule which states that witnesses are set up with roughly the same level of income they had in their previous life. Since many participants comes from chaotic backgrounds or the lower tiers of criminal gangs, they are unlikely to be entitled to particularly lucrative payouts.

“If someone is on social welfare when they go in, that’s roughly what they’ll get in the programme. It will be enough to live on in their new location,” one security source said.

There may be other limited supports such as payments for training courses, the purchase of a car or healthcare costs. Depending on circumstances, participants may also be offered psychiatric support or a drug rehabilitation programme.

The arrangements are made by the Garda’s Witness Security Unit, a part of the Security and Intelligence Branch, but the costs are borne by the security services in the country where the witness is relocated. They then recoup them from the Garda.

“The idea is to get the person to a place where they don’t have to rely on State resources and can stand on their own feet. But even then they are still subject to security monitoring,” a source said.

Participants will sometimes fail to adjust to their new lives due to issues including addiction, mental health problems or the guilt and worry of leaving their family behind.

Keeping financial support to a minimum is vital to avoid the perception that the witness is being paid for their evidence, said barrister Alice Harrison, who researched the programme for her book, The Special Criminal Court: Practice and Procedure.

Above all, lump sums must be avoided.

“The courts have expressed the view that an agreement between a witness and the prosecuting authorities that he will give certain evidence and in return will be paid a specific amount of money is unlawful and the evidence may be excluded,” she wrote.

Even so, Hutch’s legal team will go through Dowdall’s witness security agreement with a fine tooth comb to determine if there’s anything in there which could be interpreted as a financial incentive. In the past, defence barristers have claimed things such as paying for driving lessons for a protected witness constituted a reward for giving evidence.

This process will considerably lengthen the forthcoming Regency trial and Dowdall is almost certain to undergo intense cross-examination before a decision is taken to even admit him as a witness.

The State’s willingness to consider Dowdall for the programme indicates that his evidence would be beneficial to the prosecution. According to Harrison’s book, only witnesses with evidence of a “critical nature to the prosecution and which is not available elsewhere” are considered for protection.

But that’s no guarantee his evidence will convince the judges of the Special Criminal Court who, on several occasions, have rejected or devalued such testimony. When David Cullen entered the programme after turning State’s witness against the killers of dissident republican Peter Butterly in 2013, the court felt it “could attribute very little weight” to his testimony.

More famously, the evidence of Charles Bowden, the first man to enter the programme, was partly rejected by the court during the trial of John Gilligan for the murder of journalist Veronica Guerin. One judge described Bowden as “a vicious criminal ... who would lie without hesitation and regardless of the consequences for others if he perceived it to be in his own interest to do so”.

It’s a problem common to many of these cases; the witnesses with the best evidence are usually serious criminals themselves and often directly involved in the commission of the offence they are testifying about.

What if Dowdall can’t take living abroad, alone and constantly looking over his shoulder? He will be free to return to Ireland at any time. All the Garda can do is withdraw financial support.

This is what happened with Joey O’Callaghan who, at 18, became the youngest person to enter witness protection when he testified against murderers Brian Kenny and Thomas Hinchon. Once relocated overseas, he spiralled into addiction and anxiety. “I was sectioned. I cut my wrists, took overdoses. I was just killing myself,” he told this newspaper in 2020.

O’Callaghan returned home to his mother against the advice of his handlers, who told him they couldn’t assist him any more. He now lives in a secret location.

Cases like this raise the question of what duty of care gardaí have to people in the programme and those who leave. In 2016, the High Court ruled there is no specific onus on gardaí to protect a person on the programme, aside from taking basic measures such as keeping their location a secret.

It’s impossible to say how many people are currently in the programme. Recently, there’s been a large increase in its budget, in each of the past two years it has been €1.2 million, 10 times the figure for 2019.

However, this does not mean there has been a raft of new entrants. The budget increase may be down to revised procedures which were introduced in 2019, or it could be the cost of relocating a couple of witnesses after their security was compromised. Unsurprisingly, gardaí decline to say, even in private.

The programme’s secrecy is a point of pride for those involved. According to one source, “There’s never been a breach while someone was in the programme and they aim to keep it like that.”