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The Special Criminal Court and political policing in contemporary Ireland

In this article I intend to examine the nature of political policing in contemporary Ireland, and what the long-term consequences could be with the presence of the two non-Jury courts intended for political offences.

As an Irish Republican and anti-internment activist I have not been alone in taking notice of the recent establishment of a second ‘Special Criminal Court’ in Dublin. I also do not find it coincidental that numerous Republicans have appeared before this new court in the few months since it entered service, with the most notable charge being ‘membership of an illegal organisation’.

The ‘Special Criminal Court’ in its current incarnation was first established in 1972 following an amendment to the already draconian ‘Offences against the State Act’, itself introduced in 1939 as a means to suppress Republican activity.

The establishment of this court came 3 years into an outbreak of extreme violence in the Six Counties, with Republicans waging a war of liberation against the British occupation, and Britain responding through internment without trial and military action carried out both by their own army and proxy death squads made up of locally recruited Ulster Loyalists.

Once again the neo-colonial puppet government of Leinster House established the ‘Special Criminal Court’ as a means to suppress a newly invigorated Republican movement, who at the time were taking extremely effective measures against Crown forces through the use of guerrilla warfare.

The Offences against the State Act allowed for any individual to be convicted of ‘membership of an illegal organisation’ on the word of a senior Garda alone, and even if this initial charge didn’t always result in a conviction, the accused individual had to wait at least 18 months to 2 years before their case came to trial, either under extremely strict bail conditions, or on remand in Portlaoise Gaol, the highest security prison in Europe. An amendment in 1998 also withdrew the right to silence to anyone arrested under the act.

Despite the fact that the level of conflict in the Occupied Six Counties has greatly decreased since 1997, due to the surrender of the Provisional Movement and their subsequent recognition of British rule in Ireland, this draconian piece of legislation is still enforced in the 26 Counties today, and Republican activists still face the possibility of being brought before the non-Jury ‘Special Criminal Court’ and interned in Portlaoise Gaol without trial.

Anyone deemed to be a Subversive in the eyes of the state is constantly followed, harassed and threatened by the Free State’s political police, the Special Detective Unit (more commonly known as the ‘Special Branch’), and a compliant pro-British media in the 26 Counties engages in constant demonization of Republican activists and the movement in general.

In contrast, Dublin has suffered with a severe drugs problem since the early 1980s, when Heroin was first imported into the country, and this problem has also begun to emerge in Limerick and Cork in recent years. Successive Leinster House governments have repeatedly failed to tackle the underlying social conditions that have given rise to this endemic, and this has led to powerful criminal gangs emerging in the 26 Counties, possessing both international connections and firepower akin to that of a small army.

Despite this the 26 Counties political establishment does not commit the same effort to tackling these gangs as they do to targeting Republicans, and in recent years Republicans have experienced numerous attacks and murders at the hands of these gangs, leading to the widely-held belief that the state is using them as proxy death squads in a manner similar to Britain’s uses of proxies in the Occupied Six Counties.

The establishment of a second ‘Special Criminal Court’ also comes at a time when there is great social unrest in the 26 Counties. There have been widespread protests in the past several years against Leinster House’s cuts, austerity measures, and their cosy relationships with large multi-national corporations. Those who take part in these protests, many of whom are Republicans themselves, have also been targeted by politically motivated police and demonised by the corporate media.

The constitution of the 26 Counties directs that the SCC be used when the “ordinary courts are inadequate to secure the effective administration of justice“, the wording of this legislation is deliberately vague, so as to cover a wide range of ‘offences’ committed by Republicans, and with the establishment of a second court intended for political activists, one can only assume that the state will eventually use the SCC to prosecute those who have protested against their austerity measures, as they will not want to risk a Jury in a normal court, sympathetic  to the plight of anti-austerity activists, finding them not guilty.

Finally, it is no coincidence that the second SCC was established in the Centenary year of the 1916 Rising, the 26 Counties administration clearly feared an upsurge of Republican sympathies in the run up to this significant occasion, and prepared for more internment in case of such an event.

Current ‘Justice’ Minister for the 26 Counties, Frances Fitzgerald, has been responsible for introducing three new ‘anti-terrorism’ laws since taking office in 2014 (one of which can potentially make playing a Republican ballad a criminal offence carrying a jail term of up to 10 years), and in 2015, 226 people were arrested for Republican activity (in comparison to 17 arrested for gangland offences).

Political policing has been a stark reality in the 26 Counties since Ireland was partitioned in 1922, even in the 1950s, when the intensity of conflict against British occupation was at a more-or-less identical level to that of today, thousands of Republicans found themselves interned in the Curragh camp.

With the establishment of a second Court intended solely for political activists, the introduction of more and more legislation intended to curb political dissent, and a heavy crackdown on anyone engaging in anti-government protests, all signs indicate that this political policing will become much more overt in the next few years, and internment will become a reality for many more political activists.

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