Murder, AK-47s and Drug Wars: Irish Election Just Livened Up

  • Opponents attack Sinn Fein's plan to axe no-jury trial
  • Hotel assault and revenge murder turn election focus on crime

Minutes from the gleaming buildings of Dublin’s International Financial Services Centre, armed police patrolled inner-city streets festooned with election posters this week, trying to tamp down an eruption of gangland violence.

Across the city, in the plush surroundings of the Royal Irish Academy, Sinn Fein’s manifesto launch was dominated by questions about the party’s crime policy. Days earlier a gang used AK-47 assault rifles to attack a boxing weigh-in, in a raid which carried paramilitary overtones.

Police stand near the scene of a fatal shooting in Dublin.

Photographer: Caroline Quinn/AFP via Getty Images

With just over two weeks left to the Feb. 26 election, the attack focused attention on Sinn Fein’s proposal to eliminate a special no-jury court used to try gangland figures and terrorists suspects. While its election rivals sought to portray themselves as the party of law and order, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, synonymous with Northern Irish conflict, has been forced to deny he’s soft on crime as focus of the election moved away from the economy.

“Sinn Fein will not take any lectures” about tackling crime, Adams said Wednesday. “This government has a disastrous record in justice.”

Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald said so-called saturation policing, including multiple checkpoints and patrols, would intensify in Dublin. She defended the government’s record on crime, pointing out that there were just three gangland murders last year compared to 17 in 2010. She said the government would fight any attempt to abolish the jury-free trials.

Rebranding Adams

The former political wing of the Irish Republican Army, Sinn Fein has rebranded itself as the leading opponent of spending cuts and tax increases since the 2011 election.

To an extent, that strategy worked. In December 2014, Sinn Fein drew 24 percent backing in one poll, making it the biggest party, and more than doubling its support from 2011.

Since then, though, the party’s support has tapered off to about 17 percent as the Irish economy recovered and its Greek allies, Syriza, failed to win significant concessions from its bailout masters.

The attacks pose a new challenge for the party. On Feb. 5, a group of men disguised as police attacked a hotel in the city, shooting one person dead. Initially, the Continuity Irish Republican Army, a splinter group which opposes Northern Ireland’s peace process, appeared to claim responsibility for the shooting, though that claim was later contradicted.

On Monday in Dublin, another man was murdered in what police say is likely a revenge attack in a wider drugs-related feud.

“Sinn Fein doesn’t want crime to be the story, it usually helps right-wing parties, ” said Eoin O’Malley, a politics lecturer at Dublin City University. “It means Sinn Fein is talking about something other than its own message.”

Political Risk

Political opponents quickly turned fire on Sinn Fein’s plan to eliminate the Special Criminal Court, which tries organized crime and terrorism cases. While the court is often used to avoid the threat of intimidation, Amnesty International and the United Nations have criticized it for denying suspects a jury trial.

Sinn Fein’s Adams said the “normal rule of law” should be used to handle such cases, and the party blamed the outbreak of violence on a lack of police resources.

“It shows them up for what they are and I think people are worried about it,” Niall Collins, justice spokesman of Fianna Fail, the biggest opposition party, told reporters in Dublin on Wednesday.

It’s not clear how the episode will cloud the party’s electoral prospects. In the recent past, Sinn Fein has tended to recover quickly from negative headlines, said Richard Colwell, chief executive officer at polling company Red C.

This time though, “we’re in the middle of an election campaign,” Colwell said. “Things are not as easily forgotten.”

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