Q&A: Sinn Féin’s Dáil ‘walk out’ and the Special Criminal Court

Annual renewal debate and Dublin Bay South by-election put SCC back in spotlight

 

A fresh political row has broken out over the Special Criminal Court as Government TDs accused Sinn Féin of staging a “walk out” ahead of the Dáil vote on extending its powers. But what is the Special Criminal Court, where does Sinn Féin stand on it, and why is it back on the agenda now?

What is the Special Criminal Court?

It is a non-jury criminal court which tries terrorism and serious organised crime cases. It was previously used during the Troubles to prosecute and jail members of the Provisional IRA. Due to the nature of its powers, the legislation underpinning it must be reviewed annually by the Dáil and Seanad. 

What is Sinn Féin’s historic position on the court?  

For many years Sinn Féin opposed the existence of the Special Criminal Court (SCC), and its Oireachtas members consistently voted against the renewal of its powers in Leinster House. Its 2016 election manifesto committed Sinn Féin to abolishing the court and repealing the Offences Against the State Act. Then party leader Gerry Adams said Sinn Féin would would replace the SCC with the “normal rule of law”.  

What is the party’s position now?

Last year Sinn Féin abstained in the vote on renewing the SCC’s powers for the first time. Sinn Féin TDs left the Dáil chamber on Wednesday evening before the vote on renewing the legislation on the SCC took place. 

Sinn Féin’s policy to abstain came about during last year’s general election which was taking place against a backdrop of serious gang violence in Drogheda, with the SCC becoming an issue in the campaign. Party leader Mary Lou McDonald said that the court was “not unproblematic” but Sinn Féin stepped back from its full opposition to the court saying it should be reviewed.

Is Sinn Féin the only organisation with qualms about the SCC?

The Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) has argued it has denied fair trial rights for half a century. The Social Democrats have highlighted criticisms of the SCC by the ICCL and Amnesty International. The party tabled an amendment to formally end the emergency provisions on the use of the non-jury courts on June 29th, 2022 which was defeated by the Government. Eight Sinn Féin TDs abstained in that vote.

People Before Profit TDs were among seven TDs to vote against extending the SCC powers on Wednesday night. Prior to entering Government, the Green Party’s leadership team of Eamon Ryan and Catherine Martin opposed the Offences Against the State Act at various times in Dáil votes due to concerns over civil liberties. That party voted in favour of extending the SCC powers on Wednesday.

What did Sinn Féin say during Wednesday’s Dáil debate?

Before Sinn Féin TDs left the chamber, the Dáil had been debating the extension for another year of the use of the 1998 Offences Against the State (Amendment) Act, which is aimed at tackling terrorism, and the 2009 Criminal Justice (Amendment) Act, which deals with gangland crime.

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”. He said: “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.”

What did the Government say?

Minister for Justice Heather Humphreys said the legislation for the SCC was still needed because of the “real threat from terrorist activity, particularly from dissident republican paramilitary groups”. Later junior justice minister James Browne took to social media to accuse Sinn Féin of a “bizarre and childish walkout in protest against lesgislation that tackles the threats to our safety posed by terrorism and organised crime”. He claimed Sinn Féin was “soft” on both issues.

Is there any prospect of changes to the laws underpinning the SCC?

There is an independent review group chaired by former Court of Appeal judge Michael Peart examining all aspects of of the Offences Against the State Acts. The Dáil heard an interim report by the group is due to be ready shortly. Sinn Féin has made a submission to the review. The commitment to undertake the review was part of the programme for government as well as a key recommendation of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland, the body established to direct a major overhaul of justice.

Why is this coming up as an issue now?

Aside from the need to renew legislation, the issue of the SCC has also been injected into the Dublin Bay South by-election by Fine Gael, who challenged Sinn Féin’s candidate, Senator Lynn Boylan, to commit to voting for its renewal. Ms Boylan was asked if she wants to see the court used to try people on terror and gang-related charges in the future during an RTÉ Radio interview earlier this month. She said she wants to see what the review of the SCC “comes back with”.

Pressed on her own view she said: “I think we need to look at something that was set up as an emergency measure 20 years ago and to see how we can best equip the Gardaí to tackle the crimes of a modern era.” She said Sinn Féin had made a submission to the review but declined to say what it contained saying she wasn’t the party’s justice spokesperson.