Sinn Féin TD Maurice Quinlivan has said that "in hindsight" members of his party should have recorded their abstention in a Dáil vote on extending the powers of the Special Criminal Court (SCC). However, he insisted it would have "made no difference" as the party was abstaining anyway.
Sinn Féin TDs left the Dáil chamber on Wednesday night before votes on two pieces of legislation that underpin the use of the non-jury court to prosecute terrorists and organised crime gangs. This prompted accusations from Government TDs that Sinn Féin had staged “a walkout”.
Minister for Justice Heather Humphreys said on Thursday the matter before the Dáil had been about a renewal of "absolutely crucial" powers to fight criminals, terrorists and subversives.
She said she was “surprised” and “disappointed” that Sinn Féin TDs left the chamber before the final votes, and said they “should have exercised their democratic right”.
Sinn Féin has traditionally opposed the Offences Against the State Act and the SCC, but last year abstained in the Dáil vote for the first time amid an independent review of the operations of the law underpinning it.
Mr Quinlivan made his remarks on Limerick's Live95fm radio as he engaged in a heated debate with Fine Gael Minister of State Patrick O'Donovan.
Mr O’Donovan claimed that the rival party presents itself as “this bright new shiny Sinn Féin and they can be trusted and they’re somehow ready for government” but that “the mask slipped”.
Garda Jerry McCabe
He said the SCC has been used to protect the people of Ireland from "drugs gangs", "warlords" and "terrorists".
He cited the use of the SCC to prosecute the Provisional IRA members that killed Garda Jerry McCabe, as well as the criminals responsible for the gang murders of Shane Geoghegan and Roy Collins.
Mr O’Donovan claimed Sinn Féin TDs “got the message from Belfast” ahead of Wednesday night’s Dáil vote.
Mr Quinlivan branded this as “nonsense” and “simply not true”.
Mr O’Donovan said “what happened last night was a walkout of a democratically-elected parliament – a 1930s-style walkout...there’s a button there for abstain”.
Mr Quinlivan told Mr O'Donovan to "cop yourself on" in relation to comparisons with Germany in the 1930s.
When pressed on why Sinn Féin TDs walked out, Mr Quinlivan replied: “No particular reasons” and suggested that some members were there.
He highlighted Kildare South TD Patricia Ryan, who later confirmed she was mistaken in remarks she made to her local radio station KFM suggesting she had been present and registered a vote.
Social Democrats amendment
Ms Ryan had earlier on Wednesday voted "abstain" along with some Sinn Féin colleagues on a Social Democrats amendment to the legislation on the SCC. They did not participate in the final votes later in the evening.
She told The Irish Times: “I was mistaken. I assumed it was the last vote but know now that it wasn’t. Either way I was abstaining along with my party colleagues.”
Mr Quinlivan said he was not in the Dáil chamber “because we were abstaining...I thought there was no difference. In hindsight we should have just pressed the abstain button. It would have made no difference.”
He said Sinn Féin had made its position on the Special Criminal Court clear, that it had sought a review of the laws surrounding the court, and this was ongoing.
Mr Quinlivan also said “there are some cases need to come before a Special Criminal Court but I do believe as well that there’s a better way we can do this, and that’s why we asked for a review last year.”
An independent review group, chaired by former Court of Appeal judge Michael Peart, is examining all aspects of of the Offences Against the State Acts, and is due to deliver an interim report shortly.