Kieran Allen argues that Special Criminal Courts will only help Fine Gael’s law and order image but will not defeat crime.
Masked police in balaclavas. Police checkpoints with armed sub-machine guns. Headlines screaming ‘A City Gripped by Fear’. It’s not Mexico City but Dublin days before a general election.
The Department of Justice pressed the panic buttons and has ratcheted up a mini ‘strategy of tension’.
There is no logical reason for it. True, many people were deeply shocked by the brazen and brutal gangland killing in the Regency Hotel and the subsequent murder in Ballybough. The killers operated with a shocking impunity to spread a message of fear.
But the Regency killings were carried out by thugs dressed as police officers in balaclavas. Which only begs the question: why put more armed men in balaclavas on the streets? Does it not provide an opportunity for more confusion?
Just before the Regency killings, the Fine Gael-Labour argument about a ‘fiscal space’ providing money for election promises was falling apart. The two parties could not agree on whether they had €8 billion or €12 billion to spend from their ‘manana money’. To make matters worse, news of stock market turbulence put the prospect of continual growth of the Irish economy in question.
Better to switch to a ‘law and order’ agenda, thought the Fine Gael strategists. Their media friends could then concentrate on Sinn Fein’s ‘weak point’. By pure co-incidence, the judgement in the ‘Slab’ Murphy case was also due a few days. So the dirty tricks department thought that they were onto a good thing.
The reality, however, is that calls for a Special Criminal Court will do nothing to solve the problem of organised crime.
The Special Criminal Court came into existence through the Offenses Against the State Act, passed in 1939. It allowed a government to declare a state of emergency and set up courts which could convict people on the word of a Garda superintendent.
During the 1970s and 1980s, convictions were also obtained by confessions from the accused. The police formed a ‘heavy gang’ unit which visited the accused in prison cells and beat confessions out of them. In one notorious case, the Sallins train robbery, Nicky Kelly was wrongly convicted on such evidence.
The record of the Special Criminal Court was so bad that even the Labour Party, including its current leader Joan Burton, opposed its extension in 2009 for use against organised crime. The former President Mary Robinson, summed up the reasoning ‘To charge persons in the Special Criminal Court that are charged with purely criminal offences is to abolish trial by jury by the back door’
Aside from these elementary human rights concerns, the Special Criminal Court has not stopped the spread of organised crime.
Ireland’s murder rate is about average for the EU but, according to security correspondent, Tom Clonan, murder by deadly weapons is five times higher.
One of the reasons is that the state allowed pockets of extreme deprivation to arise in impoverished working class areas. As unemployment shot up, drug distribution and sale became an alternative economy that guaranteed a high status. Young men, in particular were drawn into the drugs industry because they were excluded from the official economy.
When this escalated into shoot outs, the state turned a blind eye. The predominant attitude was that the killings only affected criminal gangs and it was hoped that they might just ‘wipe each other out’.
Another Special Criminal Court may help Fine Gael’s law and order image. But it will do nothing to stop the spread of organised crime.
The justification used about ‘juror intimidation’ makes little sense because it could equally – and even more so- apply to witnesses. So in effect Fine Gael might as well be proposing a juryless and witnessless court. Special criminal courts are not used in the US, Scotland or England to tackle organised crime because other mechanisms can be used to protect juries – a jury could hear video evidence or could be seated behind screens, for example.
Organised crime will only be defeated when the scourge of unemployment is tackled and the prohibition style opportunity given to gangs to deal in cannabis and other drugs is removed.