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Nicola Tallant: ‘Destroyed’ records lay bare fractured Garda intelligence sharing in Hutch trial

The destruction of records is never a good look, particularly when they relate to evidence being disputed at such a high-profile trial like that of Gerry ‘The Monk’ Hutch, who stands accused of murder.

Several Garda probes into Hutch were ongoing

Nicola TallantSunday World

The revelation that gardai had destroyed records from a tracking device seemed to hang in the air for an instant before the enormity of the situation hit home to journalists, police, lawyers and members of the public crowded into the Special Criminal Court.

The destruction of records is never a good look, particularly when they relate to evidence being disputed at such a high-profile trial like that of Gerry ‘The Monk’ Hutch, who stands accused of murder.

It was retired Detective Superintendent William Johnston who broke the news, as he was being quizzed about approval of the tracking device on Jonathan Dowdall’s car and District Court authorisation for the audio bug.

It was a polite way to put it when Johnston told Brendan Grehan SC that the records were "unavailable.”

We later heard that it wasn’t Johnston who’d ordered their destruction, in fact, he clearly stated that he wouldn’t have – but it was his successor at the National Surveillance Unit (NSU), Detective Superintendent Ciaran Hoey.

Charges: Gerry ‘The Monk’ Hutch is on trial for the murder of David Byrne at the Regency Hotel in Dublin in 2016. Photo: PA

And so began the heady exchanges between The Monk’s laywers and Garda Hoey, who confidently held his ground and said he was simply following the legislation when he got rid of all the information collated on the tracker device.

But let’s rewind a little before we get bogged down in the drama of the missing records, because what Johnston said before that bombshell was equally as important and totally overshadowed in an incredible week in the trial.

Giving evidence, Johnson told the court that he received information from Det Supt Hoey on February 16, 2016 for the approval to deploy the tracker on Dowdall’s Toyota Land Cruiser for a period of two months.

The reason to track the car was to assist in the gathering of evidence into the investigation of the murder of David Byrne, he told the court.

A day later, Johnston recalled that he went to the District Court where he asked a judge for permission to attach the audio bug on the car to “monitor” the conversations of Dowdall and his associates.

In the witness box, he was asked to read out what he had sworn to the Judge in order to secure permission to secretly record the goings-on in the car.

One of the grounds, he said, was that he had received intelligence that Dowdall had travelled to Derry on January 5, 2016 to meet with a man described as Martin McLoone of the Real IRA (RIRA).

Johnston went on to tell the court that on January 18, 2016 Dowdall had brought Gerard Hutch to Derry. While there was no detail about who he had met or what they had done there, it was clear that the former Sinn Fein councillor was under some sort of surveillance in the weeks before the Regency Hotel attack.

Councillor Jonathan Dowdall

The car, he said, was being used by Dowdall, his father Patrick and members of an organised crime group to travel to meetings.

On February 12, a week after David Byrne’s murder, retired Detective Superintendent Johnston told the District Court Judge that Hutch had called to the Navan Road where he had a meeting with Dowdall. These were meetings of an "organised crime group”, he said.

He was granted the authorisation from February 17 to April 16 to allow “the full monitoring of the alleged activities of the organised crime group.”

What is striking of course is the fact that the Special Criminal Court was told that Jonathan Dowdall was not a member of an organised crime group and instead had been duped or tricked into his involvement in the Regency Hotel attack.

Despite the fact that he was charged with murder along with Hutch, he pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of facilitating the crime and agreed to turn State witness.

Next week, 10 hours of recordings taken from the car will be played to the Special Criminal Court. While most of it is likely to be irrelevant to the case, the recordings do contain admissions, the State say, by Hutch about his involvement and the planning of the Regency.

Hutch and his team want the audio evidence dismissed – and it is only in the non-jury Special Criminal Court (SCC) that such a situation could occur that the disputed evidence is first read into the record and then possibly ruled out.

Hutch’s lawyer, Brendan Grehan SC, argues that the District Court Judge who authorised the surveillance was misled because he wasn’t told about the tracker. He also maintains that for eight hours of the recording, the jeep was in Northern Ireland and gardai were operating outside the law.

The jurisdiction issue will be secondary, and only relied upon if the first argument doesn’t work.

For the prosecution, headed up by Sean Gillane SC, the audio forms the ‘backbone’ of the case and realistically, without it, the State so far have little on Hutch, apart from some CCTV footage of him in the weeks after the Regency.

Gillane said that the audio is from March 7, 2016, when Hutch and Dowdall travelled to Strabane, Co Tyrone, two days before dissident Shane Rowan was arrested with the Regency guns.

Despite a garda team from Ballymun being in place at that point to investigate the murder of David Byrne, they were not involved in the arrest of Rowan or the seizure of the AK47s which was instead handled by the Special Detective Unit, the Senior Investigating Officer of which was the only person privy to the fact that the jeep was being tracked.

The fractured investigations which were all running independently into Dowdall, Hutch, the Hutch Organised Crime Group and the paramilitary groups are an extraordinary insight into the workings of the Garda Siochana and the lack of intelligence sharing by its Crime and Security division. The trial continues.

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