Sinn Féin and the Green Party have faced widespread condemnation after they failed to oppose the renewal of the ‘Special Criminal Court’, a court dating from 1939 which is used to deprive republicans and others of the right to a fair trial by jury.
Sinn Féin TDs left the chamber of the Dublin parliament before the final vote was taken, drawing further attention to their decision to abstain on the issue.
When pressed on why Sinn Féin TDs walked out, Sinn Féin TD Maurice Quinlivan replied: “No particular reasons” but that “in hindsight” members of his party should have recorded their abstention in the normal manner. However, he insisted it would have “made no difference” as the party was abstaining anyway.
The special courts, which allow for the imprisonment of citizens on little more than the word of a senior Garda police officer, have been repeatedly denounced by civil rights organisations in Ireland and around the word.
Amnesty international and the UN have condemned the draconian Offences Against the State Act, which is unique in western Europe, and Sinn Féin has traditionally opposed it. However, the juryless fast-track courts have been supported by successive right-wing governments as a strategy for tackling organised crime and “subversives”, meaning IRA Volunteers, and polls show a majority of voters in the 26 counties are in favour.
Prior to entering the current coalition government, the Green Party opposed the Offences Against the State Act due to concerns over civil liberties. However it voted in favour of extending the SCC powers on Wednesday evening, along with their right-wing coalition partners.
Last year Sinn Féin abstained in the parliamentary vote on the annual renewal of the legislation for the first time, pointing to an ongoing review of the law, but that failed to deflect criticism of the party’s u-turn.
People Before Profit TD Paul Murphy, who took part in a protest outside the Dáil ahead of the vote, said it was a “terrible decision” by Sinn Féin “to abandon their opposition after some pressure” from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. His party and independents Thomas Pringle and Joan Collins were the only TDs to vote against the renewal.
Saoradh said the “lure of possible power” had made both Sinn Féin and the Green party change their “once principled stance” against the legislation.
The Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) had urged TDs to vote for the abolition of the Special Criminal Court, saying it represents the single biggest denial of fair trial rights in the Irish legal system.
ICCL executive director Liam Herrick said: “The right to a fair trial is the cornerstone of a just and fair society. It includes the right to a trial by a jury of your peers, and the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.
“These rights are protected by our own Constitution and by international human rights law. But these rights are not respected in the Special Criminal Court.”
A spokesperson for Sinn Féin said the legislation was consistent with its policy: “Sinn Féin made it clear during the course of the Dáil and Seanad debates that we would not oppose the motion and that we would abstain. That is what we did.”