Sinn Féin’s support for a Special Criminal Court without a jury in “exceptional circumstances” includes its use in the prosecution of dissident Republican suspects, party leader Mary Lou McDonald has confirmed.
A vote in the ard fheis of the party abandoned Sinn Féin’s long-standing policy of outright opposition to the court.
The Special Criminal Court adjudicates cases of terrorism and serious organized crime.
It was previously used during the unrest to prosecute members of the Provisional IRA with a significant number of incarcerations.
Sinn Féin has traditionally opposed the annual renewal of the legislation that underpins the tribunal, even though it abstained for the first time last year.
As part of the ard fheis motion, the party wants reforms to its operations and related legislation to be modernized, but recognizes that juryless courts may be necessary in “exceptional circumstances” for cases where there is a threat to the safety of jurors or a risk of intimidation.
It was an “important decision” and a “necessary one,” Ms. McDonald told RTÉ’s The Week in Politics on Sunday.
She said the best option would always be a jury trial, but party policy also provides for an anonymous juries option and the party wants decisions on whether to use a jury without a jury to be made by judges rather than by the Director of Public Prosecutions.
Ms McDonald was asked if the exceptional circumstances of going to a tribunal without a jury would include cases involving paramilitaries posing as the IRA and she answered “yes”.
He was told that some former Republican prisoners opposed the motion and younger members of Sinn Féin argued that it was a taming of the party by “the establishment”.
Ms McDonald said she did not accept this and added: “the conflict – thank goodness – is over”.
“We are not in the 1970s and 1980s. We are now in 2021.. . and the reality is that we have what is called gang crime ”.
She said these gangs “think they are untouchable” and “use intimidation to cause all kinds of misery in the very communities we represent.
“The gardaí and the judiciary must have all the means to do their job responsibly – they have no freedom of movement – and we accept in exceptional circumstances that this means trials without a jury. “
Taoiseach Micheál Martin was questioned by reporters in Co Kildare on Sunday about Sinn Féin’s policy change regarding the Special Criminal Court.
Mr Martin said: “I remember Seamus Mallon’s joke about slow learners,” a reference to the former SDLP deputy chief’s comments on the Belfast deal being Sunningdale for slow learners.
He added, “I mean, how long does it take to realize that you need special criminal courts to deal with terrorists and armed criminal gangs who really have the capacity to intimidate juries?”
“We know these armed gangs are very, very dangerous to the fabric of our society. “