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Sinn Féin set to accept no-jury courts for ‘exceptional’ cases

by editor

DUBLIN — Ireland’s main opposition party, Sinn Féin, appears poised to take another step away from its Irish Republican Army past — by accepting the need for non-jury courts that have long put IRA members behind bars.

The policy U-turn faces a grassroots vote Saturday at Sinn Fein’s annual conference. Party leader Mary Lou McDonald and her powerful central committee have authored the motion, making its passage certain.

While couched in broadly critical terms of the existing three-judge Special Criminal Court, the motion concedes that Ireland needs such juryless courts in “exceptional circumstances.” The Sinn Fein leadership also proposes new policies to shield jurors from potential identification, intimidation and attack.

Until now, Sinn Féin always has voted against maintaining the Special Criminal Court, as Ireland’s parliament has done each year since 1972, the deadliest year of the conflict over Northern Ireland. The Irish state’s 1937 constitution permits such courts in cases where “ordinary courts are inadequate to secure the effective administration of justice.”

Sinn Féin has maintained its opposition even as the court’s bulging caseload has increasingly shifted its focus from IRA factions to Ireland’s underworld, particularly a Dublin feud between the Kinahan and Hutch gangs that has claimed 18 lives.

Changing its stance on the court would remove a potential stumbling block for Sinn Féin to enter government in the Republic of Ireland for the first time.

It would follow Sinn Féin’s most fundamental move on law-and-order matters: its 2007 decision to recognize the legitimacy of the police in Northern Ireland. That move paved the way for Sinn Féin to forge a power-sharing government in the U.K. region with the north’s British unionists.

Sinn Féin won the popular vote at the last Irish general election in February 2020 and seeks to wield power in Dublin as well as Belfast. It failed to strike a coalition deal last year, in part because Ireland’s traditional big two parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, accused it of prioritizing loyalty to IRA outlaws over the state.

In June, when Sinn Féin lawmakers walked out before a parliamentary vote on extending the non-jury court’s powers for another year, Fine Gael’s Neale Richmond declared: “When it comes to protecting our society from the most vicious terrorists and gangsters, the silence from Sinn Féin is deafening.”

Such barbs haven’t proved electorally effective as Sinn Féin keeps building its poll-topping position at the expense of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Their coalition, forged by a shared loathing of Sinn Féin, faces rising public discontent over the cost, quality and availability of housing and health care. Both issues are likely to dominate the next election, which must happen by February 2025.

McDonald, a former Fianna Fáil activist who joined Sinn Féin following the Provisional IRA ceasefire in 1997, succeeded IRA veteran Gerry Adams as Sinn Féin’s leader in 2018. Her speech to Sinn Féin’s one-day conference Saturday night will be televised live nationally.

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