On Saturday, Sinn Féin members voted to end its long-associated opposition to the Special Criminal Court in its Ard Fheis. According to The Irish Times, the party voted on a ‘motion recommending the change’ and was passed by party officials at the Ard Fheis.
However, The Irish Times acknowledged that the motion, which was tabled by the Ard Comhairle of Sinn Féin, involved ‘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’.
In proposing the motion, the Justice Spokesperson of Sinn Féin, Martin Kenny TD 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 concerns’.
Mr Kenny elaborated further by saying that while Sinn Féin has 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’.
Arguably, the most crucial backer of the motion was North Belfast MLA, Gerry Kelly, who 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’.
Further, Gerry Kelly expressed his desire for Sinn Féin to 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’. Meanwhile, Sinn Féin TD for Dublin Fingal, Louise O’Reilly also backed the move. She said the motion was a ‘significant move by the party leadership’ and the proposals are ‘human rights compliant’.
However, the passing of the motion was not without outright opposition. Sources from The Irish Times state that ‘several delegates spoke against the motion, including Aidrean Ó Gallchobhair from Ógra Shinn Féin in county 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”.
The move by Sinn Féin in its Ard Fheis on Saturday is a significant change in direction of party policy, compared to its long-associated opposition to the renewal of the legislation each year in the Dáil. However, in the renewal of the Offences Against the State Act, in 2021, it abstained on the motion, which was a change from its outright opposition in previous years.