A motion before Sinn Féin’s annual conference to rescind the party’s opposition to the Special Criminal Court could be key to unlocking its access to government in Dublin.
The conference, or Ard Fheis, is taking place later this (Saturday) afternoon in Dublin City University.
The leadership motion would see the party endorse juryless courts, a feature of Ireland’s judicial system which has been routinely condemned by human rights groups around the world.
The non-jury courts, overseen by three judges, can convict members of the public on the basis of the “belief evidence” of a senior Garda policeman, a kangaroo court set-up normally associated with dictatorships or times of war.
Originally introduced in 1939, the authoritarian court has mainly been used as a mechanism for the incarceration of IRA suspects and republican activists. It remains highly popular with the mainstream media and general public as a form of “rough justice” for use against Dublin’s gangland criminals.
The right to a jury trial is guaranteed in the Irish Constitution, so the legislation underpinning it - the ‘Emergency’ Offences Against the State Act - must be reviewed annually by the Dublin parliament.
Several human rights organisations - including the United Nations, Amnesty International and the Irish Council on Civil Liberties (ICCL) - have all voiced serious opposition to the court. The UN has repeatedly criticised the practice.
Despite concerns over human rights, the issue became a political soft spot for Sinn Féin after party candidates were challenged on the issue during last year’s general election.
Sinn Féin has been critical of the use of juryless court, but has recently abstained in Dail votes on the measures, laying the groundwork for this weekend’s motion.
If passed, the motion will see Sinn Féin commit to non-jury courts in “exceptional” circumstances where there are “fears of intimidation or interference”, according to a party statement.
The text of the motion also calls for reforms of the courts “to be compliant with international human rights standards”, and for changes to the “archaic and outdated” Offences Against the State Act which legislates for them.
Sinn Féin has long acquiesced with the Diplock court system used by the Stormont administration in the North, under which republican activists continue to be convicted and imprisoned without a jury trial. Acceptance of the Diplock system was seen by unionist politicians at the time as a litmus test for Sinn Féin’s “house training” before entering government.
Opinion polls show the party could now be on course to lead the first left-wing Dublin government in Irish history, a seismic transformation which would rival its entry into power-sharing in Belfast.
The plan to withdraw its opposition to the Special Criminal Court is being described by Sinn Féin as a “significant move by the party leadership” and “a historic shift”.
However, Saoradh said it was not a surprise.
“In reality Sinn Féin have been slowly winding down their opposition for years in order to prove to the Free State establishment that they are ready for government and are willing to abandon any of their left wing ideals to get a seat at the table,” they said.
“Being opposed to the Special Courts is not a radical view. A jury trial is one of the core principles of justice.”