JUSTICE Minister Dermot Ahern yesterday indicated that the decision to shield the former lover of killer Eamonn Lillis, Jean Treacy, from public view may have been part of an arrangement to secure her co-operation as a witness.
Ms Treacy was allowed to use an underground entrance to and from court, ensuring her photograph could not be taken by waiting media. She was also driven from the court complex in a garda vehicle after giving evidence.
Mr Ahern's admission came as one of the country's leading criminal barristers, Michael O'Higgins, said yesterday that the shielding by gardai of Ms Treacy from the media was "a dangerous precedent."
In a radio interview yesterday, Mr Ahern said: "In relation to the witness Ms Treacy, the gardai have an onus -- and I understand that the Garda Commissioner is going to meet representatives of the newspapers and the media -- to bring a witness to court and to ensure that the witness will co-operate.
"And in some circumstances they (the gardai) do have to take measures to ensure that they get that co-operation from that witness in order to ensure that the trial is successful.
"So I think we should leave it up to the experts in this area, the gardai and indeed the Courts Service and the prison service, to decide which is the best way in particular circumstances."
But Mr O'Higgins said a precedent has been set. He added that while there may have been compelling circumstances in the case of Ms Treacy, the decision by Garda Commissioner Fachtna Murphy to address the matter in the near future signalled a recognition that this might not be applied again so readily. Mr O'Higgins suggested that now that the facility had been given to a prosecution witness, it would also have to be made available to defence witnesses.
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"If you had asked me a month ago if a defence witness would be afforded such a facility, I would have said no; but now that the precedent has been established, it would have to be available to both sides in a case."
He said it was not a move that he welcomed, though he could understand the circumstances in the case of Ms Treacy.
"Here was a witness who was in a very embarrassing situation. She faced not being able to go about her daily business without being constantly stared at and pointed at.
"But in a different case, in a different situation, a witness could be told that they were going to be a State witness one way or the other -- the easy way or the hard way.
"They could be told that gardai would do their best to protect the from the media.
"In those circumstances there might be a temptation (on the part of the witness) to sugar-coat their statement because they are dealing with gardai who could be in a position to help them out."
Mr O'Higgins added that the treatment of Ms Treacy was a matter which was also of great interest to the Irish Criminal Bar Association.
Garda Commissioner Fachtna Murphy is to meet the National Newspapers of Ireland (NNI) to discuss the issues arising from the Eamonn Lillis murder trial.
The NNI is the representative body for Ireland's national newspapers and Irish editions of British national newspapers and represents 18 publications.