It has been called Ireland’s gangland trial of the century but weeks of testimony in courtroom 11 of the Criminal Courts of Justice in Dublin have morphed into something else: a political test for Sinn Féin and its hopes of leading the next government.
Gerry “the Monk” Hutch, 59, a prominent crime boss, is on trial for a 2016 murder that fuelled a feud between rival gangs that dotted Dublin with corpses.
The evidence, however, has shone a light not just on gangsters but Sinn Féin’s alleged links to a criminal underworld, including the relationship between the party’s leader, Mary Lou McDonald, and a convicted torturer.
The scrutiny will intensify this week when the torturer, a former Sinn Féin councillor and McDonald protege named Jonathan Dowdall, is to testify about his involvement in organised crime and the republican movement.
Banner headlines in Irish newspapers about the case have already taken a toll: McDonald’s personal popularity and Sinn Féin’s support both dipped in recent polls. Sinn Féin remains the most popular party but the brake on its momentum, if sustained, would complicate its chances of leading the next government and taking power for the first time in Ireland.
“The case isn’t over yet and Jonathan Dowdall’s role hasn’t been fully unveiled. I think it could get much worse for Mary Lou McDonald next week,” said Aoife Moore, a Sunday Times journalist and author of a forthcoming book on Sinn Féin. “There would be a lot of worry in Sinn Féin head office.”
No one is predicting a terminal blow to McDonald’s leadership. She has not been accused of wrongdoing and has distanced herself from Dowdall. “Had I had even an inkling that he was involved in any form of criminality, much less what he now stands accused of, he wouldn’t have been within a roar of me or within Sinn Féin,” she told reporters in a fire-fighting blitz of media appearances. The party did not respond to an interview request for this article.
Gerry Adams handpicked McDonald, 53, a middle-class Dubliner with no involvement in the IRA, to succeed him as party leader and broaden Sinn Féin’s appeal. The strategy worked. But her image is now tainted. “She was close to Dowdall. It reflects badly on her,” said Shane Ross, author of the biography Mary Lou McDonald: a Republican Riddle. “It’s a setback but not fatal. Sinn Féin have shrugged off worse issues.”
Even so, the trial at the Special Criminal Court, which sits with three judges and has no jury, is making the party squirm.
The case centres on an attack in February 2016: armed men disguised as police stormed Dublin’s Regency hotel to target rival gangsters during a boxing bout weigh-in. They killed David Byrne, a member of the Kinahan cartel, stoking a tit-for-tat feud that claimed 18 lives between 2015 and 2018 and still rumbles on. Hutch, dubbed “the Monk” for a relatively restrained personality and lifestyle, denies the murder charge, which carries a life sentence.
Dowdall, 44, was originally a co-defendant but he cut a plea deal and is now serving a four-year sentence for helping the killers.
It has emerged that Dowdall donated money to the party, including €1,000 to McDonald in 2011, and was photographed with McDonald and Adams. In 2014 he won a council seat for Sinn Féin in McDonald’s north Dublin constituency.
While a councillor, Dowdall waterboarded a man. Sinn Féin said it had no reason to suspect Dowdall, who had no convictions until being found guilty of torture in 2018. However, the Hutch trial has heard evidence that two party officials quizzed Dowdall about criminal activities before his 2014 election.
Dowdall made the claim in conversations with Hutch recorded by police who bugged his Toyota Land Cruiser, which he allegedly used to ferry the crime boss to meetings with republicans in Northern Ireland.
In a bugged car, Dowdall claimed to Hutch that McDonald had used the Hutch family for money and votes.
The Sinn Féin leader has rejected the allegation. Dowdall himself has put a question mark over the claim. In a statement to Gardai, he said he had lied and exaggerated while conversing with Hutch. “I talk a lot when I’m nervous or uncomfortable.”
Moore said the trial might dent Sinn Féin’s support but not cause lasting damage. “Mary Lou McDonald has put a lid on it.” The party was poised to reap voter anger over a housing crisis, said Moore. “Do I think McDonald will be taoiseach? Yes.”