Thursday November 24 2005
The Government's witness security programme was given a massive boost by yesterday's ground-breaking decision by the Supreme Court in the case of gangland boss John Gilligan.
The programme, which is set to become a vital tool in the Garda's fight against organised crime, has been under attack in the lower courts during the Gilligan saga.
But the Supreme Court made it clear yesterday there was no reason in law why the State could not establish a programme as long as the terms for participation were properly laid down.
A review of the programme had already been carried out on the directions of Garda Commissioner Noel Conroy to ensure that aspects that were criticised and highlighted by the Special Criminal Court were overhauled and rectified.
Two of the shortcomings that emerged during the Gilligan trial were the failure of the gardai to record meetings with the three protected witnesses used in that investigation, Charles Bowden, Russell Warren and John Dunne, and the decision of the Gardai to return monies that had earlier been seized from Bowden and Warren.
The monies were later held by the Special Criminal Court to be the proceeds of crime.
Measures are now being implemented to ensure those errors cannot be repeated and officers are satisfied that they would not have taken place in the Gilligan case except that the programme was in an embryonic phase and had not fully settled before being implemented in one of the most important criminal investigations in recent years.
The evidence subsequently given by the three protected witnesses provided a vital plank in the prosecution case against Gilligan and the programme again proved its worth in an inquiry into a murder in Clondalkin in south west Dublin.
The most notorious protected witness to emerge in an Irish courtroom to date has been David Rupert whose evidence ensured that the leader of the Real IRA, Michael McKevitt could finally be put behind bars, although Rupert's participation was different in that the British and US authorities were also involved in signing him up as a star witness.
Potential witnesses must be carefully evaluated by a team of experts which includes the DPP and the assistant garda commissioner in charge of crime and security before they can be admitted under the programme.
At the moment one likely participant, hitman James Martin Cahill, is languishing in jail after being convicted of the murder of Limerick nightclub guard, Brian Fitzgerald.
But his knowledge of the inner workings of the Limerick gang scene could ultimately provide the weapon to jail many of the key players there.
In the current investigations into the Dublin gangland feud detectives attempted to bring one leading participant into the programme but so far he has resisted the temptation.
But if the death toll increases the man, who has already narrowly escaped a murder attempt, may change his mind.
The witness protection programme is now officially here to stay and it will ultimately be shown again to be a crucial part of the garda's armoury in overcoming the gun gangs.