Sinn Fein Special Courts Vote an Ominous Sign?

(Opinion – Finbar Markey)

Sinn Fein has formally voted to abolish the Special Criminal Courts as they stand, and if in government, to replace them with courts that will continue to hold non-jury trials. The vote by the membership of Sinn Fein at their Ard Fheis on Saturday (31st October 2021) has brought to an end eighty years of opposition to criminal courts and non-jury trials by Sinn Fein.

It is a fact that Special Criminal Courts and non-jury trials, introduced via the Offences Against the State Acts beginning in 1939, were a legal Instrument designed specifically for Sinn Fein and it’s militant members, emergency powers created to placate British fears of Republican Assistance to Germany. Throughout the scores of years that followed, it was Sinn Fein members that faced the Special Courts in Ireland, that were sentenced on the basis of ‘belief-evidence’, a quasi-legal concoction that allows for the submission of evidence from a senior Garda that is in fact opinion only, and were sentenced by Judges from a political class repulsed by Sinn Fein and it’s working class republicanism. The judges then and now are also allowed to make inferences from the silence of the Defendant, a particularly wicked instrument more suited to the hands of the conveners of Witch trials than a modern court.

In the motion that effectively gives support to non-jury trials, Sinn Fein makes efforts to sanitise and justify the proposed change by stating that Amnesty International are against Special Criminal Courts in Ireland too, but then goes on to call for non-jury trials saying…

“in exceptional circumstances where a normal jury process could not proceed due to fears of intimidation or interference”

There is some reference made to gangsters scourging the streets, but on detail, there is little else, and that’s a shame. It’s a shame because the Special Criminal Courts and the laws that uphold them are a complete rejection of the pillar of fair procedure that a person can be tried by their peers. As it stands, the Special Courts can and do try cases for what are called scheduled crimes, in other words named, serious crimes such as murder, armed robbery etc. The Special Criminal Courts can also try any unscheduled crimes brought before them by the DPP including for instance tax related crimes (and the Minister for Justice holds particular powers in this area too). This has occurred recently in the ‘Slab’Murphy case.

The lack of detail by Sinn Fein around what constitutes “exceptional circumstances” leaves the door open for the party hacks (all parties have hacks) to now say they have party consensus, lets make minor changes only when in power. On the other hand the lack of definition of ‘exceptional circumstances’ also leaves open the potential for a watering down of such circumstances to frivolous, alleged online threats around social and political issues as an example, all passed at the party conference of course (via a motion with no detail).  Sinn  Fein’s failure to discuss, define and commit with their members around intrinsic and fundamental aspects of the Special Criminal Courts such as ‘belief-evidence’ and ‘non-scheduled’ crimes, again having been voted for on Saturday, gives the Party Leadership a free reign to do little to nothing other than tinker with the Special Criminal Courts if they lead the next government, but also to extend the use of non-jury trials. “The party members have spoken”, you may be told.

A colleague suggested to me earlier today that the Sinn Fein Motion on the Special Criminal Courts was in fact a ‘tip-of-the-hat’ to the powers that be, a ‘nod-and-a-wink’ that if they get into government, they won’t rock the boat too much. Their performance in the North tells us that they’ll be willing to slash and burn as well as any conservative. Their standard retort to this is that the North gets it’s money from London. Well lads and lassies, we get ours from Brussels.

We desperately need change as a nation, we need common sense to defeat the madness of rampant neo-capitalism in which there are no rules, only the few winners and many, many losers. It’s looking like Sinn Fein may be our next option. So often I hear “sure I suppose they deserve a chance”. I worry that in their attempts to look electable, they may be changing into a creature that by it’s very nature cannot bring about the change that is needed. They have lost their instinct, there is little doubt about this. They voted for the first bank bail-out, were bounced into it by fear tactics. The haven’t whimpered a criticism through COVID19 about the suppression of opinions, of freedoms, and the rise of big-pharma to new heights of political and financial control.

The vote by Sinn Fein members this week to support non-jury trials and to discuss the Special Criminal Courts whilst only addressing one of many unjust aspects of the Courts and Law, tells me that Sinn Fein need to be pushed more by their supporters and by voters that may be willing to vote for them in the next elections. Pushed for detail, pushed for commitment, and pushed for honesty. Maybe, because they are the assumed heirs to the throne, there is an element of tip-toeing around them by would-be-supporters, a tip-toeing that may lead to disappointment. To avoid disappointment, the people ought to demand detail and commitment now, not after an election.