Sinn Féin drops opposition to Special Criminal Court

Delegates accept ‘rare and exceptional occasions’ when non-jury courts are necessary

Sinn Féin has dropped its long-standing policy of outright opposition to the Special Criminal Court (SCC) after a motion recommending the change was passed at the party’s ardfheis.

The motion tabled by Sinn Féin’s Ard Comhairle included criticisms of the SCC in relation to civil liberties and outlined the need for the law in relation to it to be modernised but also acknowledged that non-jury courts may be needed in “exceptional circumstances”.

Proposing the motion, Sligo-Leitrim TD Martin Kenny said there may be “rare and exceptional occasions” when non-jury courts were necessary. But they should only be used “when all other alternatives have been exhausted and with the strictest of judicial oversight” to ensure it complies with international human rights norms.

North Belfast MLA Gerry Kelly backed the motion and said it was a “very significant route for the party leadership and I believe a very decisive initiative”.


All courts, he said, “should be integrated into a single, modern criminal justice system, which will include provision for jury trials, anonymising jury trials, and special protection for juries where these are clearly demonstrated to be necessary”.

Sinn Féin would be “in government in the South, hopefully very soon, as well as in the North, so this is about action we can take, we will take, if in government”, he said.

Several delegates spoke against the motion, including Adrian O’Gallagher of Ógra Shinn Féin in Co Donegal, who said the idea of a non-jury court was “something this party should not advocate for, due to human rights abuses. We have seen in the past how non-jury courts were used against republicans . . . although things have changed the idea of non-jury courts is still a denial of human rights,” he said.

The non-jury criminal court tries terrorism and serious organised crime cases and was previously used during the Troubles to prosecute members of the Provisional IRA.

Due to the nature of its powers, legislation underpinning it – the Offences Against the State Act – must be reviewed annually by the Dáil and Seanad.

Sinn Féin has traditionally opposed this legislation and has been persistently critical of the use of the SCC.

Mr Kenny told delegates that Sinn Féin had held a “long-term position” of opposition to the present Offences Against the State Act, but “opposition is not for opposition’s sake, it is to seek improvement and development toward a 21st century criminal justice infrastructure to tackle 21st century crime.

“We are all aware how this legislation was used in the dark days of the past,” he said and for “political convenience in times of conflict against republicans” but those “dark days are long over”.

Instead, he said, “organised criminal gangs with vast resources are wreaking havoc on communities and society, the outworking of which is the devastation of drug addiction in communities. When it comes to legislation that is fitted with the reality of today, it is not appropriate that necessary laws to deal with international organised crime would need to be renewed on an annual basis as emergency legislation and this needs to come to an end,” he said.

‘Human rights’

Louise O’Reilly, the party’s TD for Dublin Fingal, said the motion was a “significant move by the party leadership” and the proposals are “human rights compliant”.

She said the party had a “clear message from this ardfheis to these so-called crime bosses who think they are untouchable . . . Sinn Féin in government will make sure the courts and the gardaí will make sure they have every power they need to end your grip on our communities.”

A delegate who introduced himself as an ex-prisoner said he supported some of the measures in the motion but he disagreed totally “with the wish to introduce or go to accept or even anything to do with special courts . . . I’m a victim of that . . . and I don’t want to see any special courts for anybody whatsoever”.

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times