General Election 2016 has, unsurprisingly, been dominated by the economy. However, an unlikely high-profile issue is that of the existence of the Special Criminal Court. Sinn Féin has thrust this issue into the lime-light with a pledge to repeal it in its manifesto. This has promptly led to attacks from other political parties, drawing attention to Sinn Féin’s connections with the IRA, and particularly the recent high-profile conviction of Thomas Murphy in the Special Criminal Court for tax-evasion. The level of this debate from both sides so far has, however, been wholly unsatisfactory from a human rights perspective. Gerry Adams’ suggestion that the existence of gangland murders shows that the Special Criminal Court does not work is as equally frustrating as Brian Hayes asking Mary Lou Mc Donald as to whether she thinks that Thomas Murphy is a good republican.
The relevance of this debate is not, however, limited to Ireland. Parallels can be drawn between Ireland’s experience of the Special Criminal Court and French Constitutional amendments currently being debated by its parliament. In turn, this can illuminate the key human rights issues at the heart of both states’ emergency responses.
France’s State of Emergency
Less than 72 hours after the attacks on Paris, French President François Hollande declared that France was at war and stresed the need for sweeping new laws to confront the terrorist threat. Hollande followed this up with the declaration of a state of emergency which was subsequently extended by parliament for a further 3 months. The emergency powers triggered by this declaration date back to 1955 and France’s last declaration of a state of emergency to deal with Algeria’s struggle for independence. These powers – outlined in legislation, not the French constitution – give French police the power to search homes without a warrant, ban protests and other public gatherings, and can potentially ensure control of the press and radio; although these latter provisions have not yet been triggered.
Hollande has also signalled his intention to effect permanent constitutional changes. The motivation for this is to place France’s emergency powers on a constitutional footing, insulating them from the possibility of a successful legal challenge. While France already has a number of constitutional emergency powers in its constitution – for example the militaristic state of siege – these powers are extremely draconian. By placing the existing legislative powers on a constitutional foothold, Hollande is seeking to enable ‘exceptional security measures without having to resort to the most drastic options currently in the Constitution.’
In principle this sounds like a positive development for human rights and the rule of law. The potential for the most draconian of measures that encroach severely on human rights is avoided while at the same time, the state’s response to terrorist threats can be beefed up.
Exceptional but not Drastic: The Special Criminal Court
This idea of having ‘exceptional security measures without having resort to the most drastic options currently in the Constitution, is strikingly similar to what the drafters of the Irish Constitution had in mind when constructing the emergency powers system in this state. Ireland’s principal emergency powers contained in Article 28.3.3° of the Constitution essentially allow for the suspension of every article of the constitution in a ‘time of war or armed rebellion’. The only restriction on this power is that the death penalty may not be re-introduced. Ireland was under a perpetual state of emergency from the outbreak of World War II in September 1939 until February 1995 following an IRA ceasefire.
The 1935 Constitution Review Committee upon whose recommendations the Constitution’s emergency powers are based upon also suggested a procedure for less serious emergencies to be included in the draft constitution. Such crises would be when ‘the ordinary courts are inadequate to secure the effective administration of justice, and the preservation of public peace and order’ and would permit the establishment of non-jury special courts. In this manner the need to declare a state of emergency and the extreme powers that would flow from this would be avoided.
While Ireland’s state of emergency remained in force from 1939-1995, in practice, no emergency legislation was actually on the statute books for much of this time. In contrast, the special courts clause contained in Article 38.3.1° of the Irish Constitution has resulted in the Special Criminal Court becoming a permanent feature on the Irish legal landscape. Indeed, its role has expanded to not only deal with terrorism-related offences but with organised crime. Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald also recently agreed to establish a new Special Criminal Court in order to alleviate the backlog in the existing system. In a similar pattern of normalising exceptional powers, the French authorities have already used their new emergency powers, not in the fight against suspected ISIS terrorists, but to place climate change protestors under house arrest during the Paris Climate Summit in December.
A declaration of a state of emergency and the requisite powers that flow from this are serious and present a profound challenge for human rights and the rule of law. Emergencies, however, may also protect human rights by quarantining exceptional powers to exceptional times; thus preventing them from seeping into the ordinary, everyday legal system. Divorcing ‘less-exceptional’ measures from the more extreme measures dilutes the stigma attached to them and increases the propensity for these ‘less-exceptional’ measures to become normalised and permanent. The permanent nature of the Special Criminal Court in Ireland is a testament to this. The current debate as to the continued existence of the Special Criminal Court has, however, been frustrating, ignoring these key concerns and instead focusing on cheap attacks or questionable reasoning.
The Challenge of Terrorism
It is not hard to imagine that a similar situation to Ireland’s Special Criminal Court will arise in France. Hollande has labelled the existing constitutional regime for a state of emergency and state of siege unsuitable for the fight against ISIS. They were designed for a different time and a different type of enemy. Thus while Hollande may have declared ‘war’ on ISIS and subsequently ordered airstrikes on the Islamic state and sought a UN Security Council resolution authorising ‘all necessary measures in compliance with international law’ to tackle ISIS in Syria and Iraq, he nevertheless views this war as qualitatively different from those France has waged in the past.
Declaring war on something implies that the solution is military. It also implies that it is temporary. The constitutional changes proposed by Hollande are, however, to the criminal justice sphere and police powers. Terrorism thus blurs the lines between war and crime. Crime, unlike war, is viewed as a permanent threat that we must live with every day. Counter-terrorist laws therefore are framed as being necessary in order to confront a threat of great magnitude, akin to war; however, they are also framed as being a necessarily permanent change to confront a permanent threat akin to criminality. It is because of this that many of the counter-terrorist measures we’ve seen enacted around the world in the aftermath of 9/11, and indeed the Irish Special Criminal Court are permanent.
A rush to draft laws in the aftermath of a serious crisis, where emotions run high, when people are afraid, and when the temptation to over-react is at its greatest must be resisted. This danger becomes even more heightened when the legal changes are to the permanent constitution of a state. France would do well to heed the lessons from Ireland.
Dr Alan Greene is a Lecturer in Law at Durham Law School and Co-Convenor of the Durham Human Rights Centre. His research focuses on states of emergency, counter-terrorism, and human rights. He tweets @DrAlanGreene