Sinn Féin has accused the Government of creating excuses to not reform Ireland’s non-jury court, saying the annual vote to renew the legislation underpinning it was a “circus”.
Minister for Justice Helen McEntee has asked the Dáil to extend the operation of the Special Criminal Court, to deal with organised crime and counter terrorism cases, for a further year.
It will not be accepting an amendment by Sinn Féin to accept the findings of a review group to abolish the current provisions of legislation.
Ms McEntee said the Offences Against the State (Amendment) Act 1998 was established as “a necessary and wholly appropriate response” to the atrocity of the Omagh bombing, the 25th anniversary of which will be marked later this year.
The legislation underpins the Special Criminal Court.
In 2021, an independent group was asked to review the act, giving consideration to the current threat posed by domestic and international terrorism and organised crime, as well as Ireland’s obligations to the constitution, human rights and international law.
The review’s report, published last week, did not reach consensus on all matters and instead compiled a minority report from two members and a majority report from the remaining four.
While the majority’s recommendation was to replace the current Special Criminal Court with a new special court with additional safeguards and transparency, the minority warned that establishing a permanent non-jury court by ordinary legislation is “constitutionally inappropriate”.
Ms McEntee said that on the basis of “the information set out in the reports”, and on the advice of the Garda authorities, she called on TDs to vote to extend the court for a further 12 months starting from June 30th.
Ms McEntee was asking for an extension of both the Offences Against the State (Amendment) Act 1998 and the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Act 2009.
Sinn Féin had tabled a motion to both acts while the Labour Party tabled a motion to the first motion.
Kerry TD Pa Daly said the recently-published review had reached a similar conclusion to a previous report, that the two separate acts should be abolished and replaced with one piece of legislation.
The DPP should be considered in every case whether measures can be taken to mitigate the risk of jury intimidation so that juries can be used more often in such court cases.
He said he could “detect lethargy, prevarication and excuses layering over each other” from Government statements on the matter, but would still hope that the review group’s report is implemented.
“There’s no commitment, there’s no sense of urgency, there’s no desire to grasp the baton from the review committee and carry it along to the final lap to legislation, to improve, to renew, and to modernise. And that suits the Government.”
Mr Daly said the annual renewal vote on the legislation was a “circus” and “not ideal”, and suggested it suited the Government’s own political ends in “creating this political setpiece every year”.
He called on the party’s amendment to the motion to renew the court to be accepted by the Government, which would accept the review’s suggestions for reform and end yearly votes to renew the Special Criminal Court.
In her opening statement, Ms McEntee said the amendment was “merely another excuse” from Sinn Féin “to justify sitting on its hands once more on a hugely significant vote for the criminal justice system”.
“As I have said, I have asked my officials to begin detailed consultations on the findings of the reports of the review group,” she said.
“I do not think it would be appropriate, given how we are dealing with pillars of the criminal justice system which have served us well, to give a commitment to legislation without full consideration of the issues.”
A vote is to be held on the issue on Wednesday.