Sinn Féin backs use of non-jury court for dissident republican suspects

Party abstains from blocking annual renewal of Special Criminal Court legislation

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald: “The gardaí and the judiciary have to have all means available to do their jobs in an accountable fashion . . . and we accept in exceptional circumstances that will mean non-jury trials.” Photograph: Damien Storan/PA

Sinn Féin's support for a non-jury Special Criminal Court in "exceptional circumstances" includes its use for the prosecution of dissident republican suspects, party leader Mary Lou McDonald has confirmed.

A vote at the party’s ard fheis dropped Sinn Féin’s longstanding policy of outright opposition to the court.

The Special Criminal Court tries terrorism and serious organised crime cases.

It was previously used during the Troubles to prosecute members of the Provisional IRA with a significant number jailed.

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Sinn Féin has traditionally opposed the annual renewal of the legislation that underpins the court, though it abstained for the first time last year.

Under the ard fheis motion, the party wants to see reforms to how it operates and the related legislation to be modernised, but it acknowledges that non-jury courts may be needed in “exceptional circumstances” for cases where there is a threat to the safety of jurors or a risk of intimidation.

It was a “significant decision” and a “necessary one”, Ms McDonald told RTÉ’s The Week in Politics on Sunday.

Exceptional circumstances

She said the best option would always be trial by jury but the party's policy also sets out an option of anonymised juries and that the party wants decisions on the use of a non-jury court made by judges rather than the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Ms McDonald was asked if the exceptional circumstances for using a non-jury court would include cases involving paramilitaries that style themselves as IRA and she replied “yes”.

It was put to her that some former republican prisoners opposed the motion and younger members of Sinn Féin argued it was a taming of the party by the “establishment”.

Ms McDonald said she didn’t accept that and added: “the conflict – thank God – is over”.

“We’re not in the 1970s and the 1980s. We are now in the year 2021 . . . and the reality is that we have so-called gangland crime”.

‘Untouchable’ gangs

She said these gangs “think they’re untouchable” and “use intimidation to cause all kinds of misery across 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 – and we accept in exceptional circumstances that will mean non-jury trials.”

Taoiseach Micheál Martin was asked by reporters in Co Kildare on Sunday about Sinn Féin’s changed policy on the Special Criminal Court.

Mr Martin said "I'm reminded of Seamus Mallon's quip about slow learners", a reference to the former SDLP deputy leader's comments about the Belfast Agreement being Sunningdale for slow learners.

He added: "I mean, how long does it take to realise that you need Special Criminal Courts to deal with terrorists and with armed criminal gangs who really have the capacity to intimidate juries?

“We know that these armed gangs are very, very dangerous to the fabric of our society.”

Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn is a Political Correspondent at The Irish Times