Bill for Witness Protection Programme drops to €200k
ACQUITTED: The trial of John Gilligan heard testimony from two State witnesses, Charles Bowden and Russell Warren. Photo: Collins Courts
January 10 2021 02:30 AM
The State spent just €200,000 on its highly secretive Witness Protection Programme (WPP) in 2019, despite being allocated a budget of €1.2m – according to data released to the Sunday Independent.
In 2018 €653,000 was spent on the programme, compared with €800,000 in 2017, while in 2016 more money was spent on the programme than in any other year since 2006, when €1.32m was used.
The WPP is for those whose lives are left in danger after giving evidence in court against dangerous criminals.
The WPP was set up in 1997 to combat attempts by criminals “to prevent the normal functioning of the criminal justice system”, including threats of violence and intimidation of witnesses.
It was introduced after the murder of Sunday Independent journalist Veronica Guerin, but the programme has never proven particularly popular, for a variety of reasons. It has also been openly criticised by judges and a former justice minister.
Charles Bowden and Russell Warren both testified as protected witnesses against John Gilligan over the murder of Ms Guerin, which ultimately Gilligan was acquitted of. Both witnesses were later relocated overseas under assumed identities.
In another case in 2011, a Crumlin man who gave evidence against four former criminal associates became a State witness and entered the programme along with members of his family.
A contract was put on the life of Joseph O’Brien after he gave evidence in the murder trial of John ‘Champagne’ Carroll. Mr O’Brien, his girlfriend and his family – except for one of his sisters, who declined to participate – left Ireland following the conclusion of the trial. The State accepted the witness played a role in Carroll’s murder. Along with his family, O’Brien was set up in another country and all were supplied with new identities, retrained and given jobs.
Following the failed murder trial against John Gilligan, Judge Brian McCracken warned that the programme was badly thought-out and “one of the most worrying features is that there never seems to have actually been a programme”.
Former Justice Minister Dermot Ahern also expressed concerns about the WPP.
“Unfortunately, people who are targeted for witness protection, whatever it is in the Irish psyche, they don’t want to leave their home, they don’t want to take up their life and go to the UK or Australia and start up a new life,” he said.
This view was backed up in 2009 by then director of public prosecutions, James Hamilton, who said he felt the scheme was “of limited use”.
The WPP is operated by An Garda Síochána and is overseen by the Crime and Security Section at Garda Headquarters, supported by the Special Detective Unit and other local garda resources.