Witness protection: history and reality

As the Collins family relocate overseas for a new life away from the pervasive threat of Limerick’s gangs, it might be the most high-profile entry into the state’s Witness Security Programme.

While Steve Collins and his family were photographed tearfully waving goodbye to Ireland, it is also understood that they will be living in their new surroundings under their old names.

This is not typically the case. Since the witness security programme was established in 1997 in the aftermath of the murder of reporter Veronica Guerin, those who have entered it have left everything behind, including their identities. In most cases, those in the programme have emerged from criminality themselves.

The programme provisionally cost the state €700,000 last year, the same cost as that in 2010 and just €80,000 less than in 2009. It reflects the small number of people in the scheme, possibly fewer than 10. Gardaí will not specify even the continents to which the scheme extends, but it is known that language considerations are taken into account, meaning South Africa, America and Australia are options, as well as Britain and mainland Europe.

One Garda source said the programme is “a broad church” and one based on a regular assessment of risk.

Once in the programme, you may decide at a later stage that you want to leave, but according to the Garda source, your retention in the programme is assured if the risk to your safety is still deemed sufficiently high.

Similarly, the low take-up for the programme reflects the fact that not everyone is capable of seeing it through. Other candidates would rather spend time in jail than disappear to another country. In addition, fears of retribution being meted out to remaining relatives also mitigates against some people entering the programme.

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