For the first time since Sinn Féin entered the Dublin parliament, the party has abstained in a vote on the renewal of the infamous Offences Against the State Act. The legislation, which dates from 1939, facilitates the imprisonment of any individual which the 26 County government believes could pose a threat to ‘state security’ for any reason.
The Act allows for internment without trial and for the Minister for Justice to order the detention of anyone deemed dangerous to the state. It also gives extensive powers of arrest and search to Gardaí.
The Act was introduced by Eamon de Valera in 1939, and many hundreds of political prisoners have been ‘convicted’ by these special courts. One member of Sinn Féin was jailed under the Act on the basis of his possession of a poster, and another for a speech he made.
As justification, Minister Flanagan said the view of the Garda was that there remains “a real and persistent threat from republican paramilitary groups on this island”, and pointed to widely dismissed claims by British forces that a breakaway IRA group had planned a bomb attack on a ferry to Scotland.
Several organisations including the United Nations, Amnesty and the Irish Council on Civil Liberties (ICCL) have long-standing opposition to the legislation. The United Nations first said it was “not justified” in 1993 and it has repeated that stance several times in the decades since.
Throughout the conflict, unionists noted the powers of oppression in the Six Counties were weak in comparison to the sweeping nature of the legislation used in the South. Sinn Féin had called for the Special Criminal Court to be abolished for the past 20 years, so this week’s change of heart came as a shock.
P arty officials said the decision came after the outgoing Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan promised a review of the legislation. Sinn Féin’s Justice spokeperson Martin Kenny said they had been promised the review would be independent, but said that they had been given no deadline for the review.
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald has declared she doesn’t want the Special Criminal Court abolished. Speaking in the Dáil, she said she accepted that “we need mechanisms and special powers”.
“What we have been calling for for the last four years is for a review led by a High Court judge to ensure that the courts, the gardaí the DPP’s office have the full resources that they need to keep people safe,” she said.
There was a hostile response to the change from traditional republicans, who warned that Sinn Féin in government could be tempted to use the legislation against their own republican rivals, as Fianna Fáil had done before.
Pádraic MacCoitir, spokesperson for Lasair Dhearg, said, “So oppressive were those laws many people were afraid to raise their voices against the state. Most of those who did were imprisoned and many refused to recognise their courts. Censorship also came under this legislation which enabled the state to get away with human rights abuses.
“During the most recent campaign many Republicans were imprisoned on the word of a senior garda in a Special Court where three judges sat and handed out sentences at will. People took to the streets in opposition to these laws and Sinn Féin was to the fore in these protests. They had called for the ending of ‘Special Courts’ and indeed the ‘Offences against The State Act’; and rightly so.”
Former Republican Sinn Féin leader Des Dalton described it as “another step on the road they embarked on in 1986. Recognition of the partition states, acceptance of the unionist veto, decommissioning, acceptance of British policing.”