Sinn Féin has come in for sustained criticism after it broke with republican tradition by dropping its outright opposition to the use of non-jury courts and other special legislation used to suppress the struggle for Irish reunification in the 26 Counties.
Sinn Féin’s decision to support non-jury courts in certain circumstances will clear the way for the party to form the next government in Dublin, but at some cost to its republican base.
The party’s youth wing were among those who denounced the motion brought forward by the leadership to withdraw its opposition to the Special Criminal Court. The motion was passed by delegates by a 2-to-1 majority at its annual conference at the weekend.
Sinn Féin had long opposed the existence of the ‘emergency’ legislation used to prosecute, intern and execute members of the IRA since the 1940s.
The execution of the IRA Chief of Staff, Charlie Kerins, was ordered by the Special Criminal Court in 1944.
Charlie Kerins (pictured, right) was ordered to be hanged on the same scaffold used to execute War of Independence hero Kevin Barry in a public attack on ‘physical force’ republicanism by then Fianna Fáil leader and Taoiseach, Eamon de Valera. A total of six IRA Volunteers were executed by de Valera’s government under emergency legislation during that period.
For decades, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) and United Nations Human Rights Council argued the military-style court denied human rights. It was subjected to several legal challenges by renowned Irish barrister and international humanitarian Sean MacBride.
Sinn Féin said this’s week’s move was a recognition that a current review of the emergency powers is expected to bring reforms, and that special legislation “is required to tackle the scourge of criminal gangs”.
But it was another major u-turn for the party since former leader Gerry Adams said in 2015 that “Sinn Féin is absolutely opposed to the existence and operation of the non-jury Special Criminal Court.”
Speaking at the opening of the Ard Fheis conference at the Helix in Dublin, Mary Lou McDonald said a non-jury court is appropriate in cases of jury intimidation and jury or witness tampering. She insisted the party’s position on reform of the system was “very much in the line with Amnesty, the UN, and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties”.
“It is all about appropriate judicial oversight,” she added. “It is also about recognising that we don’t have an emergency now.”
The move is also significant for Irish unionists and reactionaries such as Eoghan Harris, who have described support for the Offences Against the State act as a sign of ‘good authority’, a readiness to take on republicans who may still pose a threat to the 26 County statelet.
Speaking to Irish radio on Sunday, Ms McDonald said she believes that breakaway IRA groups should be tried in non-jury courts, but again insisted the motion was motivated by gangland crime.
“I think it’s important to state that the conflict is, thank God, over,” she said. “We’re not in the 1970s the 1980s. We are now in the year 2021, heading into 2022.
“The reality is that we have so-called gangland crime. These gangs think they’re untouchable. They use intimidation to cause all kinds of misery to the very communities that we represent.
“The Gardaí and the judiciary have to have all means available to do their jobs in an accountable fashion. They don’t have a free run. We accept in exceptional circumstances, that will mean non-jury trials.”
Current Fianna Fail leader and Taoiseach Micheal Martin supported the move, but said Sinn Féin were “slow learners”.
“I mean how long does it take to realise that you need non-jury courts to deal with terrorists and armed criminal gangs who really have the capacity to intimidate juries? We know that and these armed gangs are very, very dangerous to the fabric of our society.”
In other ways, Sinn Féin has been preparing for government by ratcheting down its perceived threat to the status quo. On a separate issue, the party’s deputy leader in the 26 Counties, Pearse Doherty, said in a recent interview that “big business and investors know Sinn Féin won’t go after them”.
However, younger members of the party told the party conference they are witnessing the “taming” of Sinn Féin by the establishment. One member Adrian O’Gallagher from County Donegal, said a non-jury court was something the party “should not advocate for, due to human rights abuses”.
“We have seen in the past how non-jury courts were used against republicans,” Mr O’Gallagher said. “Although things have changed the idea of non-jury courts is still a denial of human rights.”
And a former Sinn Féin councillor and daughter of Sinn Féin veteran Martin Ferris has described the party’s decision to end its opposition to non-jury courts as “utter bulls**t” and “cute hoorism” [political trickery].
In a social media post, the long-serving Kerry councillor Toiréasa Ferris criticised the shift in policy as “power at any cost” and said she will “now have to find another party to vote for”.
Ms Ferris said she is “desperate to see a left-led government” but added that she is gutted that Sinn Féin “seem as willing to be whatever they have to be just to get there”.