Sinn Féin recently dropped its policy of opposition to the non-jury Special Criminal Court in southern Ireland. Sinn Féin leader, Mary Lou McDonald, said the court should be used in “exceptional circumstances”, including for the prosecution of ‘dissident republican’ suspects.
The Special Criminal Court was previously used during the long-running conflict in the north (often referred to as the ‘Troubles’) to prosecute members of the Provisional IRA, of which Sinn Féin is the political wing.
Anton McCabe looks at the role of the Special Criminal Court and why Marxists oppose it.
Socialists stand for the abolition of the Special Criminal Court, which was established in 1972, as a supposed emergency measure in response to the worsening ‘Troubles’ in the North.
A review, commissioned over 20 years ago by the Southern Government itself, said of the court: “There are too many contemporary and historical examples from around the world of States in which political/economic elites have used the cover of emergency or special measures to suppress the growth of opposition and of alternative views.”
For Militant Left, that is the greatest danger posed by such measures.
Unless confined to very specific, objectively defined targets, the review noted, “they have a tendency to be used by the State, and by powerful forces or interests within the State, to pursue ulterior agendas.”
These were not the conclusions of Marxists. The review was chaired by Anthony J. Hederman, former Attorney General, Supreme Court judge, and Treasurer of Fianna Fáil, for decades the main capitalist party in the South. The other committee members were equally establishment figures.
The words of Fianna Fáil TD [member of the Irish parliament] Jim Tunney during the Dáil [Irish parliament] debate of November 1972 are chilling as to the motivation behind the court:” We are told that it is an accepted principle that a man is innocent until he is proved guilty. I must confess that I am having doubts as to the wisdom of acceptance of that principle…. And I still have doubts.”
That belief, shared widely among the Southern political establishment, underpins the Special Criminal Court. We are now a generation past the paramilitary ceasefires of 1994. Despite this, the Special Criminal Court continues to exist. It sits with three judges but no jury. Since the passing of the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Act 2009, it deals with cases allegedly involving organised crime.
This was a dangerous widening of already excessive powers. The law in capitalist society is not fair or impartial. Its ultimate purpose is to defend capitalist property and exploitation. However, a jury gives a certain degree of protection to defendants. That is because juries are drawn from the wider population.
There is no doubt there is significant public support for measures against organised crime. People in working-class areas suffer most from gang feuds and drug dealing. That does not make increased State repression through institutions like the Special Criminal Court right. Nor does it solve the social problems that spawned gangs and addiction.
This Court can just as easily be used against trade unions, campaigners, and socialists. That is, against anyone who seems a threat to the capitalist order. The Jobstown trials of 2017 are an example of what the State is prepared to do when faced with sustained working-class opposition.
When the Special Criminal Court was introduced in 1972, our predecessor group, Militant, had just been established. Despite that, one of our supporters was instrumental in organising a march of over 1,000 students from the University College Dublin campus at Belfield to the Dáil in opposition.
The extended powers of the Special Criminal Court are an immediate threat, particularly to young working-class men from deprived areas. Gardaí [Irish police] come under political pressure to deliver convictions after certain crimes. Given policing culture, they can also act on prejudice, either against residents of certain areas, members of particular racial or ethnic groups, or particular individuals. Occasionally even middle-class people can be caught up in this. And certainly, these powers are useful for the state against strikers or protestors.
At the time the court was established, the methods of the Provisional IRA weakened opposition to it. They isolated themselves by the nature of their armed campaign.
All this makes the vote of the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis [conference] to support the Special Criminal Court simply incredible. The northern Assembly former Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, current Sinn Féin TD Dessie Ellis, and former Sinn Féin TD Martin Ferris, were all convicted at the Special Criminal Court. It means working-class people will pay the price of Sinn Féin’s thirst for a power that accepts leaving intact the structures of the Southern capitalist.
Militant Left’s position is that the Special Criminal Court should be abolished. With the prospect of massive social struggles in the coming years over class issues and climate change, for example, the southern establishment will surely be prepared to use this Court to clamp down. Marxists have always opposed this Court. The working class is entitled to ask why a supposedly ‘progressive’ party like Sinn Fein does not?