There have always been sensitivities and complications when it comes to Sinn Féin and the justice portfolio.
For over 30 years, the Department of Justice and An Garda Síochána regarded militant republicanism as an enemy of the State. The punitive and exceptional provisions of Offences against the State Act, including the existence of the Special Criminal Court, were specifically directed at the Provisional IRA and other proscribed paramilitary organisations.
If the State justice apparatus regarded militant republicanism as the enemy, for its part Sinn Féin did not recognise the legitimacy of the State until it dropped abstentionism in 1986. An early step was to recognise the Garda and the Irish Defence Forces as the only legitimate police and military forces in the State.
Since then there has been a gestation that is now almost complete. For the past three years the party has moved away from its long-held opposition to the Special Criminal Court. It has abstained when the annual renewal is voted on in the Dáil.
For some commentators Sinn Féin assuming the justice portfolio is not a straightforward proposition. David Farrell, professor of politics at UCD, noted that Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou expressed surprise recently that anyone should think the party should not have the Justice portfolio.
But should there be doubts? Prof Farrell says: “It is a reasonable point to make that if Sinn Féin is in a coalition scenario, and if the likely partner is Fianna Fáil, perhaps it should not be a Sinn Féin minister, at least not in the first administration.
“This is the way that a party like Sinn Féin with the history it has had could be eased into government until it became established.”
There is evidence that the party has trod carefully when it comes to justice. For example, there have been few governments in recent history where its ministers for justice have not been the subject of a motion of no confidence. Sinn Féin has supported all of those motionsbut has not done the running on them. For example, the motions tabled against ministers Alan Shatter in 2014, and Frances Fitzgerald in 2017, both came from Fianna Fáil, then the lead opposition party.
There were failures of intelligence and failures of policing that led to the Garda not being in control of Dublin city Centre for several hours. It immediately made Helen McEntee politically vulnerable
Sinn Féin has not been shy about tabling its own motions of no confidence. There was one against the Government as a whole in the summer of 2022 and one against then minister for foreign affairs Simon Coveney in 2021 (over the Government’s handing of the appointment of Katherine Zappone to a UN job). But a Sinn Féin motion on a Minister for Justice has not been debated. (It did actually table one against Fitzgerald in 2017, but it was “after the fact”. She had resigned before it could be debated.)
The violent attack on schoolchildren and a teacher last Thursday, and the subsequent riots and looting, represented the worst day of violence on Dublin’s streets for a generation. There were failures of intelligence and failures of policing that led to the Garda not being in control of Dublin city Centre for several hours. It immediately made Helen McEntee politically vulnerable. Her declaration earlier this year that Dublin streets were safe – following earlier high-profile assaults – were repeated back to her. She was also unconvincing in some of her public responses to what had occurred.
Sinn Féin’s response came in two phases. The first was an expressions of support and solidarity following the knife attack; against right-wing agitators trying to foment the situation, as well as against those who were behind the scenes of violence.
However, as it became clear that there were gaps in the policing, the focus of its response quickly hardened as it began criticising the lack of preparedness. McEntee accused Sinn Féin of flip-flopping on the issue for populist reasons. However, its stance did not really differ from any other Opposition parties. There were legitimate questions that one would expect from the Opposition.
By the next morning, Sinn Féin went into overdrive, excoriating both McEntee and Garda Commissioner Drew Harris. It loudly condemned the police and Government response on all platforms. In a gesture too far, perhaps, party leader Mary Lou McDonald tweeted a picture of a man sitting on steps and drinking from a can in the vicinity of the school in Parnell Square. Message: no lesson has been learned. Louise O’Reilly did a “show and tell” of the same image in the Dáil.
That was criticised by Labour leader Ivana Bacik and by McEntee, who told O’Reilly that everybody has a “role to be responsible… I think you should consider that before you start waving pictures around.”
Despite all the water that has flowed under the bridge, a direct challenge in the Dáil to the Minister for Justice is still a big deal for Sinn Féin
Yet, for all its outspokenness, Sinn Féin seemed reluctant to table a motion in its own name. It adopted a wait-and-see attitude. On Monday, justice spokesman Pa Daly said if the Government refused to make McEntee resign, “obviously we will look at all our options”.
Despite all the water that has flowed under the bridge, a direct challenge in the Dáil to the Minister for Justice is still a big deal for Sinn Féin. This was clearly not a decision to be taken lightly, as it represented another step away from its own past. The party held a series of internal meetings of senior people during the week before deciding to take the plunge on Thursday evening. “We thought long and hard about it,” said one party source. “It was a big decision.”
Prof Farrell says: “The mood music did suggest it would table a motion. It’s a hard one to read. I would ask, politically, is it the wisest thing? It’s the type of motion you would expect from a small Opposition party and not from the leading party of opposition to act in this way.
“This is particularly so in the way that they have come to this. There seems to have been strategic path to get to this point.”
- Find The Irish Times on WhatsApp and stay up to date