Witness protection: A life of exile, anxiety and poverty

Published date05 October 2022
Publication titleIrish Times (Dublin, Ireland)
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 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.

Security monitoring

"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...

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