Witness protection of limited use says DPP
THE witness protection programme is of "limited use" in tackling organised crime, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) has warned.
James Hamilton said that the secretive scheme, introduced in 1997 following the murder of crime journalist Veronica Guerin, is expensive, pointing out that it is a "fairly drastic" step to ask people who have witnessed a crime to move to another country and leave their homes and families.
The DPP also said that the use of informers who give intelligence to gardai before a crime is committed -- and who may take part but are not prosecuted -- should also be treated with caution.
An estimated 25pc of crimes in Ireland are not reported due to intimidation, while almost one in 10 crimes reported to gardai result in overt intimidation against witnesses, resulting in the collapse of major cases such as the Liam Keane murder trial in 2003.
Operated on an ad hoc basis by the Garda Commissioner, the witness protection scheme, which has not been placed on a statutory footing, has been criticised by the Court of Criminal Appeal. Following the failed Veronica Guerin murder trial involving convicted drug dealer 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".
The appeal court also noted that criminals who agreed to give evidence against their gangland colleagues abused the programme by increasing their demands, which included immunity from prosecution and huge sums of money, when their time to give evidence arrived.
Yesterday, during an opening address to more than 120 investigators from 26 countries who are attending a two-day conference in Dublin Castle on cross-border fraud, Mr Hamilton also appealed for extra co-operation between police and prosecuting authorities in different countries.
"This island is not immune," said Mr Hamilton who added that the recent murders of soldiers and a police officer in the North justified close co-operation between the the Irish prosecuting authorities and the DPP for Northern Ireland.
The conference heard the State's chief prosecutor claim that one in every four cigarettes smoked in the Republic is now believed to be either smuggled or counterfeit.
Mr Hamilton expressed his shock at the scale of the black market tobacco trade which was costing the public purse half a billion euro every year.
An increasing number of counterfeit cigarettes being shipped in, generally from the Far East, were also posing an additional health threat to smokers because of the unknown contents mixed with the tobacco, he warned.
"We are dealing with a staggering scale of criminality when you think about it," he said.
Mr Hamilton told the anti-fraud conference in Dublin Castle that the half a billion euro in lost revenue would be better in the State coffers, particularly in the present economic circumstances.
The soaring scale of the problem was illustrated by the seizure last year of 134 million cigarettes -- almost double the recovery of 74.5 million illegal cigarettes in 2007, he said.
One seizure alone last year of an Ireland-bound shipment from Singapore through Le Havre in northern France was worth €25m. That operation involved co-operation between the gardai, the PSNI and the UK's Serious Organised Crime Agency.
Mr Hamilton said organised criminal gangs operating around the Border, who were smuggling the cigarettes from the Far East and Middle East, were selling them on the streets.