Dublin bends the law to beat the mob

Rob Brown criticises police attempts to nail the killer of journalist Veronica Guerin
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It is the sort of issue which needs a Veronica Guerin - a journalist in the mould of Ireland's most famous investigative reporter, gunned down by criminals - who would campaign against the introduction of draconian measures putting civil liberties at risk.

But in Dublin, few voices are being raised in protest - particularly not those of Ms Guerin's journalist colleagues. But civil liberties groups fear the chief legacy of Veronica Guerin's tragic death is turning out to be the swift destruction of a fair and impartial legal system.

In the past 18 months Ireland's parliament has formulated a panoply of special measures to crack down on organised drug crime, arming the Irish police, the Garda Siochana, with more resources and fresh new powers.

Concern that Ireland's biggest drug barons were a law unto themselves and had to be dealt with was ignited by the journalist's shooting in broad daylight on a busy thoroughfare.

In the next few weeks the Minister for Justice, John O'Donoghue - will introduce another tough new law, which will mean a minimum 10-year prison sentence for anyone found in possession of more than pounds 10,000 worth of drugs. Suspected drug dealers are also set to lose their right to silence.

.One case more than any other, though, has caused grave disquiet about the state of civil liberties: the recent treatment of Patrick Eugene Holland. "Dutchy" Holland, as he is known among Dublin's criminal fraternity, who has never been tried for Guerin's murder, but some believe is now serving a 20-year sentence for that offence.

One leading Dublin lawyer told the Independent on Sunday: "There clearly was, and still is, a political imperative to charge people in connection with the murder of Veronica Guerin. Whoever committed that unspeakable atrocity should certainly be put away. But it doesn't do her memory much service that it should be done by rigging the courts."

Holland was given his heavy sentence ostensibly for selling and supplying cannabis. But others with comparable past records, found in possession of far greater quantities of the same drug, have been let off with much lighter punishment.

Holland was not in possession of any cannabis on the day that he was arrested at the ferry port of Dun Laoghaire, near Dublin. He was convicted purely on the evidence of an accomplice witness, Charles Bowden, who claimed to have been supplying 35 kilograms of cannabis a week to Holland for months.

Bowden - who admitted to the court that he had prepared the gun for Veronica Guerin's murder - is believed to have done a deal with the Garda whereby he will escape prosecution for his involvement in that crime in return for giving incriminating evidence against a number of other suspects. He is, in short, a supergrass.

The use of supergrasses to secure a successful prosecution is just one aspect of the Holland case which has eerie echoes of Ulster. Another is that Holland was tried in Dublin's Special Criminal Court before three judges but no jury.

Like the notorious Diplock courts in the North, jury-less courts were introduced in the Irish Republic in the early Seventies to address the special difficulties in securing convictions against suspected republican paramilitaries. But they were soon being used in the South to deal with cases that had no trace of terrorist involvement: over the past 23 years more than 2,000 people have been tried by a court in conditions of high security. And there has been no suspension of these special draconian measures since the IRA announced its ceasefire.

Yet trial by jury is supposed to be the foundation of the Irish justice system.

Access to a solicitor while in police custody is also generally considered to be a basic civil liberty, but on the morning Patrick Holland was apprehended by the Garda, his solicitor, James Orange, was also arrested. The official explanation was that Mr Orange was suspected of handling stolen money on behalf of a client. The effect of his simultaneous arrest was to deprive Holland of vital legal advice during his interrogation.

In the course of the subsequent court hearing the arresting Garda officer told the court that she had arrested Holland on suspicion of the murder of Veronica Guerin - a statement that would have been rejected as prejudicial evidence had it been made before a jury.

The spread of Diplock-style courts south of the border alarms Michael Farrell, the ICCL chairman. He describes the present state of civil liberties in the Irish Republic as "parlous".

The ICCL's concern about the Holland case is shared by several leading Dublin journalists. First to voice misgivings about the treatment of Holland was a leading broadcaster and writer, Vincent Browne, who contends that Patrick Holland has become a victim of both flawed justice and flawed journalism.

Long before his trial ended on 28 November, Holland had been repeatedly named as a prime suspect in the Guerin murder case by a number of Irish newspapers and broadcasting outlets which have been having a field day in the past year and a half, fingering a number of major suspected criminals for the murder. But the media tend to base their theories about who killed their former colleague largely on "Garda intelligence" and "sources" in the criminal world.

Kevin Myers, a commentator with the Irish Times, was especially troubled by the weight attached to Charles Bowden's evidence. "Charley is a likeable fellow but a crook," says Myers. "Yet his word, virtually unaided and strongly denied by the accused, secured a conviction."

In general, the crackdown on the criminal godfathers is welcomed by honest citizens simply relieved that the Irish Republic is no longer a nirvana for big-time villains, as it was for almost a decade before Veronica Guerin's death. Certainly few tears have been shed for "Dutchy" Holland. Holland is, as Vincent Browne readily acknowledges "not a likely candidate for victimhood". He is a hardened criminal whose record includes convictions for involvement in armed bank robberies and possession of explosives and detonators.

Nevertheless, given the string of high-profile miscarriages of justice involving Irish citizens in Britain in recent decades - such as the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six - one might have expected the Irish to be on their guard against police investigators desperate to quell public criticism by securing convictions through non-jury trials.

The killing of Veronica Guerin, however, appears to have pushed such concerns to the background. "To object to the conduct and coverage of this case is to risk being portrayed as insufficiently horrified at the murder of Guerin," observes fellow journalist Eamonn McCann. "Thus, the killing of Veronica Guerin is being used to stifle debate about the abuse of power by the authorities and the denial of rights to citizens. The complicity of a number of media outlets in this process, is, or should be, a cause for concern."