May 2016        

Time to get rid of special courts

Paul Doran

With the election now over, the issue of the Special Criminal Court has been largely forgotten—that is, unless you are stuck in one of Europe’s most disgusting prisons, namely Port Laoise, where “slopping out” is still the practice.
     The Special Criminal Court was an emergency court for a different era. On numerous occasions the UN Human Rights Committee has called for it to be disbanded, as it creates a two-tier system of justice that has no place in a peacetime democracy. In my opinion, it has no place at any time in any democracy.
     On 19 August 2014 the UN Human Rights Committee, in its most recent Concluding Observations on Ireland under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, stated: “The Committee reiterates its concern at the lack of a definition of terrorism under domestic legislation and the continuing operation of the Special Criminal Court. It expresses further concern at the expansion of the remit of the Court to include organised crime” (arts. 14 and 26). “The State party should introduce a definition of ‘terrorist acts’ in its domestic legislation, limited to offences which can justifiably be equated with terrorism and its serious consequences. It should also consider abolishing the Special Criminal Court.”
     But what has the present caretaker minister for justice, Frances Fitzgerald, done only stuck her two fingers up to the United Nations and all that it represents by creating another Special Criminal Court, with effect from 25 April 2016.
     The executive director of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, Mark Kelly, said: “The continuation, much less the expansion, of such a court in peacetime flouts Ireland’s human rights obligations and is not necessary in a democratic society. Crime, particularly violent and gang crime, are a legitimate concern for our legislators. Tackling such crime must not rely, however, on chipping away at the right to a fair trial, but on a commitment to adequately resourcing An Garda Síochána and the regular Courts.”
     It’s worth understanding how the Special Criminal Court came into existence. The Offences Against the State Act was introduced in 1939 as a reaction to the continuing activities of the Irish Republican Army during the Second World War. When the conflict in the North exploded, the then minister for justice, Des O’Malley (Fianna Fáil), had planned to introduce internment by the end of 1970. On 1 December 1972, when two separate car bombs exploded in Eden Quay and Sackville Place, Dublin, the Dáil was debating a bill to amend the Offences Against the State Act that would have introduced stricter measures against the Provisional IRA and other paramilitary groups.
     As a result of the two bombings, which killed two people and wounded 131, the Dáil voted for the amendment, which introduced emergency powers for combating the IRA. It is widely believed that these bombings, and previous bombings carried out by British Intelligence, were executed to influence the outcome of the voting.
     In the spring of 1974 the former president of Ireland Mary Robinson brought out a substantial report on the working of this discredited court. She produced five findings, one of which said that legislation should be introduced to give the Oireachtas some control over the workings of this court. Instead what we have is a yearly one-day discussion, normally about the first two weeks of June, and the special powers are renewed.
     So much for transparency.
     Working people will have no chance of proper justice, as those who hand down the sentences are of a class that has no empathy with people in struggle.
     The very fact that a conviction can be based on the sole word of a Garda superintendent is a blatant disregard of article 40.3.1 of the Constitution of Ireland, which states: “The State guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate the personal rights of the citizen.”
     With so many “progressive” TDs in the new Dáil one can hope that, come June, maybe, just maybe, the houses of the Oireachtas will throw out once and for all this legislation and let real justice be applied. As a wise person has said, when those that make the law break the law, there is no law.

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