The programme was established by the State in the wake of the murder of journalist Veronica Guerin in 1996, and a state witness against four members of the John Gilligan drugs gang, Charlie Bowden, was the first to be admitted to the programme on his release from prison.
More recently, Steve Collins, the father of innocent gangland murder victim, Roy Collins, and his family moved abroad with the help of the State after it purchased properties owned by Mr Collins in Limerick to allow the family start a new life.
Roy Collins was shot dead by a member of the notorious McCarthy-Dundon gang in 2009 and in March 2012, Mr Collins and his family required the State’s help to start a new life abroad after their life in Limerick became intolerable due to constant threats.
Now, new figures provided by Frances Fitzgerald, the justice minister, in a written Dáil response to Galway West TD, Brian Walsh (FG), show that the €1.21m spent on the witness protection programme last year compared to a combined spend of €1.15m for 2013 and 2012. The provisional spend last year compares to a spend of €700,000 in 2011 and the same amount in 2010.
A spokesman for the Department of Justice said: “Since 1997 the Garda Síochána has operated a witness security programme in response to attempts by criminal and other groups to prevent the normal functioning of the criminal justice system, including the use of threats of violence and systematic witness intimidation.
He said: “The witness security programme continues to play a vital part in the Garda Síochána’s ongoing efforts to counteracting gangland crime and terrorism, and has been important in securing convictions in a number of cases. Given the sensitivity of the programme’s objectives, it is not the practice nor would it be appropriate to comment on the detail of its operation.”
Fianna Fáil justice spokesman Niall Collins said that the witness protection programme was a “vital element” of the criminal justice system. He added: “Without it many serious crimes could not be successfully tried in court. While the budget may appear high, without it we would have significant difficulties in ensuring key witnesses have the ability to come forward with their evidence without fear and testify in court.”