Regency Hotel shooting trial: Dowdall faces life in witness protection as he agrees to give evidence

Former Sinn Féin councillor entered guilty plea to charge of facilitating crime by helping to book a room in the hotel

Former Sinn Féin councillor Jonathan Dowdall faces spending the rest of his life in witness protection after agreeing to give evidence in the Regency Hotel shooting trial.

The 44-year-old has agreed to give evidence against his former co-accused in the case, including Gerry Hutch. The court heard he first indicated his willingness to co-operate with gardaí immediately after his arrest last year.

This means he is facing a “grim” future where he will be relocated abroad by gardaí and will only be able to return home in very limited, secret circumstances, his barrister Michael O’Higgins SC told his client’s sentencing hearing on Monday at the Special Criminal Court.

He will have to live anonymously, in exile and constantly looking over his shoulder, counsel said. “It is a very, very heavy burden,” he said. “It’s like taking your life and standing it on its head.”

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Dowdall had been due to stand trial for murder in relation to the attack which occurred on February 5th, 2016. However, he entered a guilty plea last week to the lesser charge of facilitating the crime by helping to book a room in the hotel. His father Patrick Dowdall (65) pleaded guilty to the same offence.

Mr O’Higgins suggested to the court that it was the Garda view that the criminals behind the Regency attack asked Jonathan Dowdall to assist in order to make gardaí think republican paramilitaries were behind the attack.

The Regency attack resulted in the murder of David Byrne (34). It was carried out by criminals using automatic weapons while impersonating armed gardaí and was a significant escalation in the Hutch-Kinahan feud, which has been linked to around 18 murders.

The Dowdall’s guilty pleas marked the first convictions in the long-running investigation. Three other men, including Gerry Hutch, are due to stand trial for their alleged involvement in the shooting.

The sentencing hearing at the Criminal Courts of Justice took place amid extensive garda security, including armed officers stationed at the building’s entrance. After hearing a summary of the evidence, the three-judge panel, led by Mr Justice Tony Hunt, adjourned final sentencing to October 17th.

The court heard that Jonathan Dowdall asked about the witness protection programme following his arrest on suspicion of Mr Byrne’s murder in April of last year. At the time, he was serving an eight year sentence for false imprisonment relating to an incident where he and his father abducted and tortured a man in their home.

The following November he indicated he was willing to make a statement to gardaí. He was released from his previous sentence in April and was then interviewed by gardaí. Gardaí checked the veracity of the information and found it to be accurate.

Detectives took a formal statement from Jonathan Dowdall last week and a new charge of assisting a criminal organisation was then put to him and the murder charge was dropped.

Det Sgt Patrick O’Toole told Mr O’Higgins “a process is ongoing” regarding the possibility of Jonathan Dowdall giving evidence for the prosecution in the forthcoming trial over the shooting. He agreed with counsel that the accused has “implicated other people” and is of value to the prosecution.

Det Sgt O’Toole told prosecuting counsel Sean Gillane SC that the Dowdalls were implicated after gardaí obtained a list of guests staying at the hotel. They spotted Patrick Dowdall had used a credit card to reserve room 2104.

Jonathan then drove his father to the hotel the evening before the attack to pay for the room and pick up the key card. They then drove to another part of the city and the key cards were handed over “to another person linked to the Hutch criminal organisation.”

The court heard a man who was not before the courts this morning requested the room be booked.

Room 2104 was used on the night before the shooting by one of the attackers, Kevin Murray. He was seen on CCTV leaving the room the morning of the attack and going to meet others. Murray then returned with the others in a van which parked outside the hotel. Inside a boxing weigh-in was taking place linked to the Clash of the Clans tournament.

Murray and another man, who was dressed as a woman, exited the van brandishing handguns and entered the hotel through a laundry entrance. They made their way to the room where the weigh-in was taking place and opened fire, causing the crowd to flee.

At that point three men dressed as gardaí and wearing tactical gear exited the van armed with assault rifles. They went in through the front door where they spotted Byrne. Two of them shot him and he fell to the ground. They then shot him several more times as he tried to crawl to safety, killing him. All five attackers got back in the van which sped off and was later found burnt out.

On March 7th, Jonathan Dowdall travelled to Northern Ireland with the same person the hotel keys had been handed to. This conversation was recorded by gardaí who had bugged the car, the court heard.

The court heard Murray was from Northern Ireland and had links to the IRA. Attempts were later made to extradite him to Dublin but the Belfast High Court refused as he was in the advanced stages of motor neuron disease. Murray died a short time later.

Unlike the other gunmen, Murray never attempted to conceal his identity before or during the attack. Mr O’Higgins suggested Det Sgt O’Toole that this was done on purpose to make the force believe the attack was linked to Northern Irish paramilitaries.

The easily detectable involvement of Jonathan Dowdall, who has republican links, was intended to serve the same purpose, counsel said. Det Sgt O’Toole said this was one theory considered by gardaí.

Defence counsel for both men said they did not know the room would be used as part of an attack. Mr O’Higgins said the Dowdall family was close with the Hutch family, members of which would sometimes ask the Dowdalls to use credit cards to buy things online such as holidays and then repay them in cash.

Mr O’Higgins said his client previously borrowed money from a member of the Hutch family and was “somewhat compromised” as a result.

Det Sgt O’Toole agreed neither Dowdall is a member of a criminal organisation.

Jonathan Dowdall is a father of four and was previously the owner of a successful electrical business, counsel said. He became a Dublin city councillor for Sinn Féin in 2014 but vacated his seat and resigned from the party after a year.

Patrick Dowdall suffers from a large number of health issues which are likely to shorten his lifespan, his counsel Michael Bowman SC said. “His future appears very uncertain,” he said.

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher is Crime Correspondent of The Irish Times