Professor Dermot Walsh of Limerick University said the minister had “crossed the line” by trying to steer an ongoing criminal probe. “I think the minister has crossed the line, insofar as he’s maintaining a hands-on control of the investigation in the Colombia case and demanding regular accounts on that investigation from the Garda Commissioner. It seems to me that he’s interfering in a specific criminal investigation of individuals and that crosses the mark of political interference in the administration of justice,” he said.
Prof Walsh, who runs the Centre for Criminal Justice at the University of Limerick, said Mr McDowell seemed to be “on a crusade” against the Colombia Three and was determined to punish them through the criminal justice system.
“He has used his position as Minister for Justice by trying to steer the criminal justice process in a direction that will achieve that result.”
He said this was a matter for the Garda Commissioner and the courts. The minister seemed to be “riding roughshod” over the Constitution’s separation of powers between the Government and the administration of justice. Prof Walsh said the minister’s statements could scupper the prospect of any case ever being taken against James Monaghan, Niall Connolly or Martin McCauley.
“Can these guys get a fair trial given the extent of comment about their case, from of all people the Minister for Justice?”
Prof Walsh’s remarks follow reports Mr McDowell had told a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday it was “probable” gardaí would be travelling to Colombia to pursue their investigations. An official garda spokesman subsequently said the trip was only “an option”. However, yesterday he said it was a “strong possibility”. Unofficial garda sources said the trip was more to do with “political expediency” than advancing the criminal investigation.
Prof Walsh said the impression being conveyed was gardaí were acting under pressure from the minister.
Mr McDowell’s spokesman yesterday rejected claims of interference. “The minister is not steering anything, he’s just been kept briefed.” He said Garda Commissioner Noel Conroy told the minister on Monday it was “probable” gardaí would visit Colombia and he confirmed that yesterday.
Meanwhile, Labour leader Pat Rabbitte said the “huffing and puffing” by the PDs on the Colombia Three had collapsed and the sum total of the Cabinet’s deliberations was that “a couple of gardaí may or may not be sent on a fool’s errand to Colombia”.
DUP leader Ian Paisley described the Government’s response as “laughable” and threatened to break off contact over the issue.