Let the TV cameras into Seán Fitzpatrick trial

If the administration of justice in public is essential to the maintenance of a democratic state, then clearly the stability of the state would be supported by making access to what is happening in courts easier by having cases broadcast on television. By Vincent Browne.

The expectation that the silly season will end abruptly with the trial of Seán FitzPatrick and his co-accused is mistaken.

The book of evidence will be supplied to the defendants in the first week of October, and it could well be another year before a trial commences. That is unless things are fast-tracked; but, even then, the earliest likely date is next April.

The trial could be over in a few days - if, for instance, the judge finds after the prosecution presents its case that there is no case to answer - or it could go on for several weeks, the latter being the more likely. But whichever, it will be the most fascinating trial here, certainly since the Arms Trial of 1970. It could also be as sensational.

For those who don't remember the Arms Trial (ie everybody under the age of 60), its defendants were Charles Haughey; Captain Jim Kelly, then a recently retired intelligence officer in the Irish army; John Kelly, a Belfast member of the Provisional IRA; and Albert Luykx, a Belgian businessman resident in Ireland. They were charged with conspiracy to import arms illegally into this country.

All but Haughey admitted they were attempting to import arms, but claimed this was not illegal, as it had the authorisation of the then Minister for Defence, Jim Gibbons. They were all acquitted.

At this remove, it seems clear that the real scandal was the fact that there was a trial at all, for there is persuasive evidence that it was government policy to supply arms to beleaguered nationalists in the North. That policy was thoroughly reckless, but it now seems obvious it was policy and that the prosecution of people for the attempted implementation of government policy was, well, curious.

Aspects of the FitzPatrick trial are likely to be curious, too - though the sub judice rules mean that we have to be careful not to prejudice it.

However, we can speculate that it is likely that information will emerge concerning the extent to which the then Financial Regulator, the Department of Finance and (perhaps) members of the government, knew about what FitzPatrick and his colleagues were doing in attempting to rescue the bank from the reckless gambling of Seán Quinn; and to what extent, if any, they approved.

The legal advice that Anglo sought and obtained concerning all this will also be interesting.

Also fascinating will be the legal fallout from the State's decision to institute charges for permitting allegedly illegal loans to members of Quinn's family, namely his wife Patricia and his four daughters.

Depending on the verdict, how credible will the IBRC (formerly Anglo Irish Bank) be in arguing that a valid legally-binding contract was entered into by these Quinn family members, backed by assets which IBRC is now trying to obtain?

If the basis of such contracts was illegal, could the family be entitled to retain the €500 million international property portfolio?

This Anglo trial will be a prolonged process, not least because there may be several trials. In this, the first trial, the charges are limited to simply permitting Anglo Irish Bank to "give unlawful financial assistance" to 16 named individuals for the purpose of, or in connection with, a purchase by the same people of shares in the bank itself.

It is known that the DPP is considering further charges. It has received files from the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement in relation to the share deal to do with the movement of huge funds from Irish Life & Permanent to Anglo to inflate the deposit book, immediately before the completion of the annual audit; and charges related to the concealment of FitzPatrick's loans from the bank.

Whenever the trials commence, and however long they take, they will deal with issues of enormous public consequence. Article 34 of the Constitution requires justice to be administered in public - which, up to now, has meant that trials have to be open to the public to attend (obviously, there are some exceptions to this).

There are several pronouncements by serving members of the Supreme Court on this. In a 1989 case, Brian Walsh, maybe the most influential member of the court in its history, said: "Justice is administered in public on behalf of all the inhabitants of the state."

In a case taken by the Irish Times in 1998, the then chief justice, Liam Hamilton, said: "In a democratic state, justice must not only be done but be seen to be done. Only in this way can respect for the rule of law and public confidence in the administration of justice, so essential to the workings of a democratic state, be maintained."

If the administration of justice in public is so essential to the maintenance of a democratic state, then clearly the stability of the state would be supported by justice being administered in a manner that made access to what is happening in courts all the easier, i.e. having cases televised, or at least those cases affecting as significantly the public interest as the FitzPatrick case surely does.

There is certainly nothing in the Constitution prohibiting the televising of trials. So a simple legislative measure, authorising the televising of court proceedings, could be passed in the next few months, thereby opening up the courts to full public scrutiny, which our judges have declared is so essential to our democracy.

It is to be sincerely hoped that they go for it.  {jathumbnailoff}