Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Green Street Courthouse

Ireland's juryless courts are back in the news this week after two gangland shootings in Dublin, and Sinn Fein has made the abolition of the Special Criminal Court (SCC) an election issue.

The Government is doing the very opposite: last Monday the Minister for Justice announced that a second SCC will open in April "to try terrorist and crime-gang offences".

Yet another "special" court for yet another "emergency" situation. As Supreme Court Judge Adrian Hardiman once put it, "The cry of 'emergency' is an intoxicating one, producing an exhilarating freedom from the need to consider the rights of others and productive of a desire to repeat it again and again."

The SCC has three judges instead of a jury, and since the start of 2010 it sits in the new Criminal Courts of Justice building on Parkgate Street. But from 1972 to 2009 it was housed in the much older Green Street Courthouse in Smithfield.

Long after the street used to be cordoned off with armed police and soldiers, I paid a visit to the court in Green Street in October 2013.

It was part of that year's Open House Dublin tours (a brilliant annual event), and I had this vague idea of using the courtroom - and the graffiti-covered cells below - as settings for what's now shaping up to be Book #4 in the "Moss Reid" series.

Younger generations might recognise the courtroom from scenes in Love/Hate, but to say that these spaces reek of history is an understatement.

Robert Emmet made his speech from the dock there, and it was the scene of the trials of Wolfe Tone, John Mitchel, the Young Irelanders, the Invincibles and many other Fenian leaders.

After independence, the fledgling State had special trials too, but by the 1940s these were mainly held in Collins Barracks. With the upsurge of the Troubles at the beginning of the 1970s the SCC in its current format was re-established in 1972.

Among the first to be tried and jailed by the SCC at Green Street were the then Derry IRA leader Martin McGuinness, and An Phoblacht newspaper's editor, the historian and broadcaster Eamonn Mac Thomáis. Unionist politician Peter Robinson was convicted by the court for unlawful assembly. Perhaps the most notorious SCC trial there was for the Sallins mail train robbery, a huge travesty of justice.

On 15 July 1976, explosives were used in an escape from the cells under the courthouse; four prisoners reached a lane outside the court, but only one made good his escape. The kind of real-life event that has the makings of a dramatic movie.

And among movies that were filmed there, I've been told that it stood in for the Old Bailey in Jim Sheridan's In the Name of the Father. and a new 1916 drama series featuring Tom Vaughan-Lawlor and Aoibhinn McGinnity (Love/Hate's Nidge and Trish) is currently being shot in and around the building.