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making exceptions Sinn Fein leader McDonald defends debating motion on Special Criminal Court

Mary Lou McDonald said the party recognises the need ‘in exceptional circumstances’ for a non-jury court.

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Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald (Brian Lawless/PA)

Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald (Brian Lawless/PA)

Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald (Brian Lawless/PA)

The Sinn Fein leader has defended a decision to debate a motion that could end the party’s opposition to the Special Criminal Court at its Ard Fheis.

Mary Lou McDonald said the party recognises the need “in exceptional circumstances” for a non-jury court.

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

The party has long been an opponent of the non-jury court.

We're very, very conscious of the fact that now gangland crime, as it's called, organised crime, is wreaking havoc across society - Mary Lou McDonald

A motion to be voted on at the party’s Ard Fheis on Saturday will continue to oppose the use of the court, apart from in “exceptional circumstances”.

“We’re very, very conscious of the fact that now gangland crime, as it’s called, organised crime, is wreaking havoc across society,” Mrs McDonald said.

“I can attest to that in the constituency that I represent. We are very concerned that communities are safe, that the system works, and that those in these criminal gangs who bring real fear and bring terror to the streets, that they are held to account.

“So part and parcel of that of course is resourcing the gardai but it’s also about a judicial and a criminal system that works.

“Within that, we are now today saying that we recognise the need, in exceptional circumstances, for the option of a non-jury court.

“What we don’t want is the current system, wherein the DPP (Director of Public Prosecutions) decides if there is a case to be prosecuted, and where the case should be heard, in other words, whether or not it goes to the Special Criminal Court.

“We’re not alone in having criticised that, that’s DPP problematic.

“It’s been criticised from within the legal fraternity and by a human rights groups correctly, domestically and internationally.”

It's crazy to have 80-year-old provisions that are renewed in the Oireachtas every yearMary Lou McDonald

The motion states that Sinn Fein “agrees with the Irish Council for Civil Liberties and other human rights bodies that the Special Criminal Court as currently constituted has no place in a modern criminal justice system”.

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It describes the Offences Against the State Act, which underpins the court, to be an “archaic and outdated legal framework that is incapable of tackling 21st-century serious organised crime”.

Last year, Sinn Fein did not oppose the renewal of legislation that empowers the court for the first time in its history.

The party abstained instead of voting against.

Exceptional circumstances would include where there is intimidation of juries or a risk of jury tampering, Mrs McDonald said.

An independent review group is examining the Offences Against the State legislation.

The review into the legislation is expected to be published next year.

Mrs McDonald claimed the party’s position to reform the courts and judiciary is in line with Amnesty and with the Council for Civil Liberties.

“It’s crazy to have 80-year-old provisions that are renewed in the Oireachtas every year.

“Instead what we need is a fit for purpose monitoring system that actually works and holds these gangs to account and to make sure that there is a fair trial and fair procedure, that there is proper judicial oversight, and that it’s part of the permanent landscape of the Irish court system,” she added.

“This is something that we’ve done considerable work on.”

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