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Sinn Fein abstains for first time in Dail vote on Special Criminal Court

The party has not opposed the renewal of legislation that empowers the Special Criminal Court for the first time.

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Minister for justice Charlie Flanagan arriving for a government cabinet meeting on disability at the Marino Institute of Education in Dublin (Brian Lawless/PA)

Minister for justice Charlie Flanagan arriving for a government cabinet meeting on disability at the Marino Institute of Education in Dublin (Brian Lawless/PA)

Minister for justice Charlie Flanagan arriving for a government cabinet meeting on disability at the Marino Institute of Education in Dublin (Brian Lawless/PA)

Sinn Fein has not opposed the renewal of legislation that empowers the Special Criminal Court for the first time in its history.

The legislation has been used in trials of dissident republicans and gangland criminals in a three-judge criminal court that has no jury in order to avoid any potential intimidation of members.

The party have long being opponents of the non-jury court and have previously voted against the legislation.

Sinn Fein said the decision is conditional on an independent review of the laws within a year.

It comes as Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan announced an independent review of the Offences Against the State Act which upholds the court.

The Dail voted on Wednesday to approve the extension of the Offences Against the State and the Criminal Justice Acts.

This will renew the mandate of the Special Criminal Court for another 12 months.

Earlier, Mr Flanagan told the Dail there remains a real and persistent threat from “republican paramilitary organisations” on the island of Ireland.

He said: “I know that some members of the house are concerned about the role of the Special Criminal Court in the justice process.

“However, none of us can be blind to the threat posed to the criminal process by individuals, terrorists and organised criminal groups who seek to subvert the system through intimidation of citizens.

“I want to make clear that I am not averse to a review of this legislation. Indeed, far from it, as will become clear in the months ahead. Deputies will be aware of the intensive work taking place to implement the recommendations of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland.”

Mr Flanagan said a review of the Offences Against the State Act will be independent.

He added: “There will be a review and I believe the fine details of the review can be worked out by the incoming government. It would indeed require a significant body of work.

“The review will be independent and comprehensive and the arrangements are currently being scoped.”

Sinn Fein TD Martin Kenny, who is moving an amendment to the motions, said Mr Flanagan’s support for a review of the legislation is “very welcome – that’s something we want to see happen”.

Sinn Fein has previously called for the court to be abolished but party leader Mary Lou McDonald said in February she does not want to see it axed entirely.

Mr Kenny told the Dail: “We need to be able to move forward from this and recognise there are many problems with this legislation. Many problems have been pointed out about it – from the highest EU field and internationally, it has been condemned.

We have a responsibility to ensure that we don't put ordinary citizens on the jury list where they would be exposed to a serious threatJim O'Callaghan, Fianna Fail

“We need to bring it into the 21st century and if we can do that, we are prepared to step back and let a review of the legislation take place – but we are not prepared to have this continuous farce where we come into the Dail every year where it becomes a political football.”

Fianna Fail TD Jim O’Callaghan said he would prefer all crimes to be prosecuted in courts where juries could decide the outcome of serious criminal charges.

But he said members of the public who sit on trials in gangland cases face intimidation from those who are being prosecuted.

“We have a responsibility to ensure that we don’t put ordinary citizens on the jury list where they would be exposed to a serious threat,” he said.

“If people don’t believe me on that, I would ask them to reflect what two prominent judges said about members of the public sitting on gangland trials and facing the prospect of intimidation.

“I know there are well-intentioned people who say we can introduce mechanisms whereby the jury would not be identified by those being prosecuted, but that can be very difficult and can give rise to potential miscarriages of justice.”

Mr O’Callaghan said he agrees with the Justice Minister that there are subversive organisations still operating in Ireland and strong legislation is required to deal with them.

“We need to recall that Lyra McKee was murdered not that long ago by dissident republicans,” he added.

The legislation must also be renewed by senators pending a government being formed this weekend.

PA