Sinn Féin TDs leave Dáil before vote on use of Special Criminal Court

Minister accuses party of abandoning national parliament for ‘own political agenda’

Sinn Féin TDs have walked out of the Dáil ahead of an annual vote to extend the powers of the Special Criminal Court. In 2020, the party abstained from voting, having always voted against the legislation previously. Video: Oireachtas TV

 

Sinn Féin TDs left the Dáil chamber last night before the vote on the use of the Special Criminal Court.

TDs voted by 87 to seven to continue the use of emergency measures in the Offences Against the State Act with five Social Democrats TDs abstaining.

Eight of Sinn Féin’s 37 TDs were in attendance and abstained in an earlier vote which rejected a Social Democrats amendment to formally end the emergency provisions on the use of the non-jury courts on June 29th, 2022.

They left before the final vote on the retention of the non-jury court.

Last year, Sinn Féin abstained in the vote for the first time, having previously always voted against the legislation. The party said they did so on the basis of the independent review of the provisions, currently underway.

The Dáil was debating the exension for another year the use of the Offences Against the State (Amendment) Act, 1998, which is aimed at tackling terrorism, and the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Act, 2009, which deals with gangland crime.

Both must be reviewed annually by the Dáil and Seanad because of the nature of their provisions.

Fine Gael TD Paul Kehoe drew attention to the absence of most of the party’s of the TDs when he called for a walk-through vote and said: “ I want to point out that the Sinn Féin party abstained on that last vote”.

When the Leas Cheann Comhairle said they were in the middle of a vote, Mr Kehoe said: “I wonder why the Sinn Féin party has left the building. Is there a fire we do not know about?”

Minister of State Sean Fleming said the matter should be highlighted because “they have abandoned the national parliament in favour of their own political agenda”.

He said: “I want to know why Sinn Féin Members have left the building rather than come in and carry out their democratic duty in the national Parliament on a matter as serious as this.”

Earlier in the debate, the party’s justice spokesman, Martin Kenny, said he hoped that next year “we will be making changes to this legislation to ensure that it is robust, stable and does not attract any attention from international human rights observers in the way the present legislation does.

“We need robust legislation and we need to be able to defeat these criminal elements who run amok up and down the length and breadth of the country and internationally.

“And we see the international element of that in the cyberattack on the HSE recently.”

In the debate, the use of the Special Criminal Court to prosecute a former member of the Defence Forces for alleged membership of a terrorist organisation has been sharply criticised in the Dáil.

Independent TD Michael McNamara raised in the Dáil on Wednesday the case of Dundalk woman Lisa Smith, who is to go on trial next year on charges of being a member of unlawful terrorist group Islamic State, also known as Isis, and of financing terrorism.

Mr McNamara said it “beggars belief” that the non-jury court is to be used for this case and said the fact that this “can’t be challenged in the courts brings the whole process into disrepute”.

He told Monaghan-based Minister for Justice Heather Humphreys “the idea that Isis could subvert a trial in the ordinary courts in Ireland, I have to say, is as absurd as the idea that the Monaghan Caliphate will be declared at midnight tonight”.

He urged the Minister to “stop making a farce of the law in this way”.

Mr McNamara said non-jury courts were allowed under the Constitution and a number of countries operated them. He did not have a difficulty with this, but with the fact that a decision to try a case in the Special Criminal Court could not be legally challenged.

Independent review

The Minister said the interim report of an independent review group chaired by former Court of Appeal judge Michael Peart is due shortly on the operation of the Offences Against the State Acts.

Ms Humphreys said the provisions needed to continue to be in force because of the “real threat from terrorist activity, particularly from dissident republican paramilitary groups”.

She said the measures were “important in supporting An Garda Síochána in their efforts to investigate, disrupt and dismantle the activities of terrorists”.

Sinn Féin abstained last year for the first time in a vote on the renewal of the Offences Against the State Act, on the basis of the independent review.

The party’s justice spokesman, Martin Kenny, said he hoped that next year “we will be making changes to this legislation to ensure that it is robust, stable and does not attract any attention from international human rights observers in the way the present legislation does.

“We need robust legislation and we need to be able to defeat these criminal elements who run amok up and down the length and breadth of the country and internationally.

“And we see the international element of that in the cyberattack on the HSE recently.”

Deadline

Social Democrats joint leader Catherine Murphy had introduced an amendment putting a deadline of June 29th next year to end the use of provisions under the two Acts in question.

Ms Murphy said the challenge for the Government is “to equip our ordinary courts to administer transparent justice safely and securely” and pointed to options such as anonymous juries.

Independent Louth TD Peter Fitzpatrick supported the retention of the measures and said he believed that the drugs crisis in Drogheda “could have been a lot worse” without these measures.

The amendment was rejected.