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Don't blame Sinn Fein for undermining law, they're only following orders


The Special Criminal Court (SCC) convicted Thomas 'Slab' Murphy on nine counts of failing to submit tax returns. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

The Special Criminal Court (SCC) convicted Thomas 'Slab' Murphy on nine counts of failing to submit tax returns. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

The Special Criminal Court (SCC) convicted Thomas 'Slab' Murphy on nine counts of failing to submit tax returns. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

You knew what you were doing when you hired a defence lawyer in Russia, notes a character in the Soviet-era thriller Gorky Park.

"Yes," comes the cynical reply, "wasting your money."

That's how republicans tend to see one-judge, non-jury trials such as those held in the Special Criminal Court (SCC) which has convicted IRA godfather Thomas 'Slab' Murphy on nine counts of failing to submit tax returns.

The impression they like to give is that this is a system in which the odds are stacked against defendants; in which the innocent have no chance of justice as judges automatically accept prosecution evidence.

That caricature is ridiculous. Even at the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, when there might have been an understandable desire to lock up IRA and loyalist degenerates and throw away the key, nearly half of the thousands of defendants tried in non-jury courts were acquitted, whilst those found guilty had an automatic right of appeal denied to others.

Judges in such cases also had to give reasons for convictions; juries didn't.

So whilst SF has consistently opposed the operation of the SCC, which previously convicted Martin McGuinness, amongst others, it's not remotely accurate to say that 'Slab' Murphy's chances of acquittal were reduced as a result of not being heard before a jury of his peers - even if one could find 12 men or women who might reasonably be considered the "peers" of such a man to begin with. A jury, had it dared, might well have taken against him for any number of reasons.

Even so, it might still have been possible for Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams to question the method of Mr Murphy's conviction without igniting the sort of political fire storm which flared up last week. The usual instinct when a comrade has done something that potentially embarrasses the cause is to throw them to the wolves. That's not hugely admirable either.

It would still have been hypocritical had Adams issued a more measured criticism of the decision to try Murphy this way, considering that SF was happy to see those charged with IRA membership in the Mairia Cahill case acquitted at a non-jury trial, despite the fact there was only one judge in that case, not three, as at the SCC.

Choosing his words carefully, Adams might even have been able to stress his personal and party gratitude to 'Slab' for supporting the peace process without dragging the rest of SF into it. That, however, is not the SF President's way. Nuance is alien to him. When in a hole, he always keeps digging.

He was under attack, so he went on the attack, not only against his critics, but the whole apparatus of the State.

The interview on local radio in Louth in which he declared that he is not obliged to "swallow the entire baggage of (the) State" could be taught to future politicians as a textbook example of How Not To Respond To Controversy. Adams is not some eccentric backbencher, like Ming Flanagan or Mick Wallace, who can make a career out of being full-time members of the awkward squad.

He's head of a party with designs to lead the country, but which is dogged by suspicion that it is hostile to the very State it aspires to lead. If that's what voters consider to be your Achilles heel, don't take off your shoes and offer that same heel up for target practise by admitting that, in effect, they're right, you don't like the country and you don't care who knows it.

Adams is entitled to say that he opposes the existence of the SCC, but he should have had an answer prepared as to why he was rejecting the State's entire argument that 'Slab' Murphy could not be tried by a jury, when that argument had been won in all the highest courts in the land.

His approach forced him, not simply to take a stance against the SCC, but to trash the High Court and Supreme Court also. Why stop there? Why not fling dirt at the guards, Dail Eireann, the Aras too?

What Adams said is not surprising. Hostility to the Irish Republic is hard wired into the DNA of Northern republicans, who are still wont to refer scathingly to the 'Free State' or the '26 Counties'.

One nationalist commentator in Belfast even referred to the IRA's cross border smuggling empire as "entrepreneurial enterprise" on the grounds that the border shouldn't exist anyway. It symbolises a refusal to grant the country south of the border any legitimacy and to interpret all its actions as malign.

That's not how most people in those 26 counties see the place where they live. Most recognise that juryless trials are not ideal, but that there are reasons why they must sometimes happen.

Rather than defusing this controversy, Adams opted to childishly dig in his heels, because he's an essentially childish character, a fact which makes him more, not less, dangerous. Children thrash out. Consequences are an afterthought to them. For him, it won't matter. His seat in Louth is safe. It's other SF candidates who should worry.

Fine Gael is on the up. Labour is steadily increasing support in Dublin as the election nears. Fianna Fail's seat tally remains unpredictable, but could well be much better than expected.

There is a plethora of left wing and independent candidates waiting to soak up votes from those wishing to give the establishment a bloody nose.

The last thing SF should be doing is giving people reasons not to vote for, or transfer to, the party. Yet this is precisely the course of action on which Adams has stubbornly and unilaterally set them.

In any other party, the leader would be publicly called out on this, not least as it comes on top of a series of mishandlings which have exposed his ham-fisted ignorance of Middle Ireland.

Adams, though, sails on as SF leader, unscathed, unchallenged, 32 years and counting; and the chilling part is not simply that SF figures such as Mary Lou McDonald are forced repeatedly to jump to his defence when he says something stupid again, but that they seem entirely comfortable with a project which, as FF justice spokesman Niall Collins rightly put it, makes every single institution secondary to SF's own internal needs.

This latest farce simply shows how the "new" generation of SF representatives has learned nothing from the old, except how to repeat the same mistakes. There's no credible conclusion to draw from that, except that faceless hard men from West Belfast and South Armagh still decide what happens in SF and that they're intent on using SF as a Trojan horse to seize power and enforce in turn what happens in every corner of the State, from the highest courts of the land to the lowliest cattle shed where they've stashed the proceeds of fuel laundering.

Northern republicans are not seeking to unite the two halves of the island, but to enact a hostile takeover of one in the interests of the other. If these foxes ever get their paws into the chicken coop, it will not, to quote the traditional seasonal ditty, be Merry Christmas to all, but to Irish democracy it will definitely be good night.

Sunday Independent