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The motion on the Special Criminal Court solidifies the party's pivot from its former party policy. Sam Boal
Sinn Féin Ard Fheis

Sinn Féin votes in favour of non-jury courts in 'exceptional circumstances'

Mary Lou McDonald’s leader’s address will be aired at 5pm

LAST UPDATE | 30 Oct 2021

SINN FÉIN HAS voted in favour of a motion saying it supports the use of non-jury courts in some circumstances.

The vote was estimated to be 2:1 in favour of the motion.

Mary Lou McDonald said this morning that she’s in favour of a non-jury court – but only in “exceptional circumstances”.

Speaking at the party’s first Ard Fhéis in two years at The Helix in DCU this morning, she said the party is very conscious that organised crime is “wreaking havoc” across society. 

McDonald said they need to ensure that criminals that bring “terror to the streets” that they are held accountable. That involves a “judicial system that works”.

“We recognise the need in exceptional circumstances for the option of the non-jury court,” she told reporters.

She said at the time of the Good Friday Agreement the intent was to abolish the special powers of the Special Criminal Court at some point. That didn’t happen, she added.

The passing of today’s motion marks the end of the party’s long-standing opposition to the non-jury Special Criminal Court.

Sinn Féin’s 2020 manifesto did not call for the court to be wound up and it abstained on a vote to extend the Act this year. 

Sinn Féin’s stance on the court underwent a notable shift during in the last election campaign.

The party called for the court to be abolished as far back as 2002 (at the latest) and in the 2016 race the party pledged to “repeal the Offences Against the State Acts”.

Role of the Special Criminal Court

The court is a three-judge criminal court that deals with terrorist and organised crime cases. Significantly, it has no jury in order to avoid any potential intimidation of jury members.

This has led to criticism from human rights groups because it goes against the right to a jury trial, which is guaranteed in the Irish Constitution.

McDonald said she is not in favour of the system as it now works, where she said the Director of Public Prosecutions decides if there is a case to be prosecuted and whether the Special Criminal Court should hear a case. 

She said this is “deeply problematic” and has been highlighted as an issue by human rights groups.

The Offences Against the State Act is currently being examined by a specially commissioned six-person expert review group.

McDonald said she welcomes this review, though noted that in her view, it is twenty years too late.

“A fit for purpose, modern system that actually works” is what is needed now, she said. 

The Sinn Féin party leader said they have done a lot of work on changing their policy, and denied that they pivoted their decision as it was one of the main criticisms levelled at the party by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in the last election.

Use of modern technology to protect jurors

Speaking in favour of the motion, Sinn Féin’s Justice spokesperson Martin Kenny said modern technology can play a part in protecting jurors in criminal trials. 

Anonymised and video-link jurors could play a role in a new system, he added.

However, he said “we need to face the reality” that some non-jury courts are necessary and needed. But the use of such a court should only be used when all other alternatives have been exhausted, said Kenny. 

There should be strict judicial oversight and appeal mechanisms, he added.

Sinn Féin’s Louise O’Reilly said this motion “is about what Sinn Féin in government will look like”.

She said the party has the public’s back on housing and health and now they need to know “we have their back in feeling safe in their own homes”. 

O’Reilly said there is a clear message is being sent from the Ard Fhéis to crime bosses “who think they are untouchable” and who “rip the heart out of communities”.

She said if in government, Sinn Féin will make sure the courts and gardaí have all the powers they need to “end the grip on or communities”. 

A number of Ogra Sinn Féin speakers spoke against the motion, stating that they took issue with any form of a non-jury trial, and adding that the alternative methods mentioned, such as video-link jurors, should be the only avenues pursued. 

Ard Fhéis

It’s been three years since the party chose the song “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves” to close out its special Ard Fhéis where Mary Lou McDonald was elected as the new party president. 

No one could really know what lay ahead for the party, and very few could have predicted that three years on the polls would put Sinn Féin in a ten-point lead over Fine Gael. 

The 4 October Irish Times/IPSOS MRBI poll put Sinn Féin support at 32% and Fine Gael at 22%. In that poll, Fianna Fáil stood at 20%, with the Greens and Labour up a point each, to 7% and 4%, respectively.

Following that, the latest Business Post/Red C poll put McDonald’s party on 33% — the highest level it has ever reached in a Red C poll.

Due to the pandemic, the numbers attending have been reduced substantially from previous years, with about 700 in attendance.

The overall theme of the Ard Fheis this year is ‘Time for Change’.

McDonald’s leader’s address will be aired at 5pm on RTÉ.

The clár or programme for the event lists a number of motions to be heard, such as ones on serious organised crime, Brexit and the protocol, climate change and standing up for rural Ireland.

Other motions to be voted on today include a housing motion calling for the removal of tax exemptions for vulture funds, as well as a moratorium on the development of data centres.

The party will also vote on a motion to establish a public inquiry into the high number of Covid deaths within the nursing home sector.

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