Interview with somebody convicted by the Special Criminal Court

This is an interview conducted regarding the arrest and subsequent imprisonment of an activist who was involved with the Connolly Youth Movement. It’s essential for young Communists to understand how the institutions of the State work, what powers they possess and who composes those institutions. The Special Criminal Court was first a military court set up under the Special Powers Act in 1939 during the ‘Emergency Period’. A political analysis would suggest that the Court was set up to suppress Republicans and Communists, while a liberal one that comes from the institutions themselves places the role of the SCC on dealing with growing gang violence. The SCC has a contended position in Irish society as Amnesty International, the UN and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties have all called for the abolition of the Court.

The below interview gives you an indication of how it functions in practice and we extend a thank you to Dónal for accepting to explain, elaborate and answer a few questions.

Alexander Homits

AH: What is your name and could you tell me a bit about yourself, your politics, education and background?

DOC: My name is Dónal Ó Coisdealbha.

I grew up in Dublin, I was educated here and have been interested in politics since my teens. The left-republican political tradition always seemed to me to hold the most promise for progressive change in Ireland, with its roots in the country’s independence struggle.

I have always believed that if such progressive change, both constitutional and in terms of property relations are going to come about in Ireland, it will have to be a sort of ‘socialism with Irish characteristics’, to borrow a phrase. Grounded in a material understanding of history, but organic and from the left-republican direction, which has a very rich historical tradition and folk memory associated with it.

After leaving school I studied electronics in Dundalk IT for four years. Having graduated I began working for a biomedical company in Maynooth, and it was while walking out of the train station there on the 13th of May 2015 that I was arrested by members of the Garda special branch. I didn’t know at that moment that I wouldn’t be able to walk freely around again for quite some time!

AH: What happened next?

DOC: I was questioned over a three day period about IRA membership and possession of circuit boards which, they said, could have been used by the IRA. When you are sitting there you get the distinct impression that the questioning is really just going through the motions; they have usually already decided whether you will be going to jail, or whether they just want to gauge your reactions to various questions before releasing you. Around six other men were arrested in various parts of the country on the same day.

When the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions makes the decision to bring charges of ‘political offences’ against you, you are sent straight to the Special Criminal Court. The prosecutors, defense, police detectives and judges talk among themselves for a while and then you are told that you will have a bail hearing the following week. You are sent straight to jail from there.

AH: What were you imprisoned for and for how long?

DOC: In my case, after a year and a half of futile bail hearings, I learned that the prosecutors would not be proceeding with charges of ‘possession of explosives’, perhaps owing to the fact that I didn’t have any explosives and that circuit boards being in the possession of an electronic engineer is hardly a mystery. This still left the charge of IRA membership however, for which I was sentenced to five and a half years.

AH: What was your impression of the Special Criminal Court? Is it for dealing with gangs, or is it a political court?

DOC: Non-jury courts were established because jurors with republican sympathies kept finding republican activists innocent, and for no other reason.

The gangs are just being sent to the court to keep it ticking over and keep it active. The real reason for the existence of the Special Court remains political. It is an emergency court existing in perpetuity. It is basically an insurance policy which the State has kept in place, having never forgotten the more turbulent periods of recent history which at times threatened the stability of the institutions created by partition.

Consider the judges which sit in the court – they are hand picked. Some of them are former anti-republican political activists, and all of them share that world-view, and, of course, it could never be any other way. The same is true for the Special Branch detectives and the prosecutors and the whole apparatus of state security. Can you imagine, for a moment, that there are any republicans or Sinn Féin voters or People Before Profit supporters or Communists in any of these organisations? Of course not, they are all subject to a complete security background check to prevent such a thing. They are selected from particular families which are regarded as being very loyal to the institutions of the state, and very hostile to the republican and socialist political traditions.

The history of the Special Court confirms that overt political bias. Any evidence of republican or socialist sympathies, for example possession of certain books or newspapers, are always taken as supporting evidence of what they regard as criminal activity.

AH: Tell me about the Offences Against The State Act.

DOC: The Offences Against the State Act is basically the legal mechanism for the suspending of your normal legal rights. At the moment when you are arrested, the Special Branch give you the standard “You have the right to remain silent” speech. What happens when you are in the Garda station being questioned is that they then say “Your right to silence is now revoked”.

So, not only can anything which you do say be taken as evidence against you, but any question which you do not answer to the satisfaction of the questioning Gardaí will also be taken as evidence against you. It is an impossible situation, as you will never be able to answer questions to their satisfaction – and that’s the point.

The Offences Against the State Act also includes provision for taking the word of a member of the Gardaí as evidence of a crime in itself. In other words, if a Garda says you did it – you did it.

AH: What was your experience of Portlaoise prison?

DOC: Being in prison is a difficult situation for anyone to be in, there’s no doubt about that. I have to say however that despite this, being inside with the republican prisoners on the E3 and E4 landings made it much easier. There were always various language classes, political economy classes, history lectures, lively debates on all kinds of current affairs – all organised by the prisoners themselves. It really is a kind of university there, and it’s impressive. For someone like me who enjoys this kind of environment, it made my time go a lot faster.

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