Dáil debates

Thursday, 7 December 2006

3:00 pm

Photo of Michael McDowellMichael McDowell (Dublin South East, Progressive Democrats)

The witness security programme was established in 1997 under the direct operational control and administration of the Garda Commissioner. The programme was established in response to attempts by criminal and other groups to prevent the normal functioning of the criminal justice system, including threats of violence and systematic intimidation of witnesses.

Although legislation was not required to establish the programme, it was recognised that complementary legislative provisions might be required in due course. A number of provisions were subsequently enacted in the Criminal Justice Act 1999. Under these provisions, it is an offence for any person, without lawful authority, to try to identify the whereabouts or new identity of a witness who has been relocated under the programme and for a person to intimidate or put in fear any person who is assisting the Garda Síochána in the investigation of an offence, or is a witness, potential witness, juror or potential juror in criminal proceedings, with the intention of obstructing, perverting or interfering with the course of justice. The programme has been very successful and it has demonstrably contributed to securing convictions against very serious organised crime figures.

In 2003 the Court of Criminal Appeal criticised aspects of the operation of the programme, in particular the perceived lack of sufficient structure to its operation. The programme's legal basis was not questioned and the Court of Criminal Appeal upheld its operation, as did the Supreme Court subsequently.

Nevertheless, in response to these criticisms, the Garda Commissioner immediately appointed an assistant commissioner to review the programme in its entirety. That review was substantially completed in 2005 and enhancements to the administration and operation of the programme have since been implemented. For obvious reasons of security, I am loath to detail these enhanced measures. However, the witness security programme now operates according to international best practice in the balancing of the needs of law enforcement with the needs of the protected witness. This includes separating those responsible for the criminal investigation from the management of the programme. There must be a Chinese wall between the two. Professional informant management protocols have been set up and the social and emotional needs of the protected witness are considered.

A number of policy matters arising from the Garda review remain under consideration by Garda management. As the final product of internal Garda considerations is not yet available, it would be premature of me to decide upon possible avenues of further progress, including the introduction of new legislation. The witness security programme constitutes only one element of the State's response to witness tampering and intimidation. The programme is primarily designed to facilitate persons who are prepared to give evidence against alleged erstwhile criminal associates and admittance to the programme may involve relocation and identity change. Such extensive protection measures may not be appropriate for all witnesses. The Garda Síochána continues to operate comprehensive police protection measures before, during and after the criminal trial involving witnesses outside the witness security programme.


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