Sinn Fein members and supporters have been to court more than half a dozen times in the past three years, and more actions are in the pipeline. Their applications have enjoyed a strikingly high success rate.
In particular, they have obtained a series of High Court judgments against the Unionist-run Belfast City Council. Four cases either taken or supported by Sinn Fein have all been upheld by the courts.
In each instance the council has been forced to reverse its policies. Furthermore, since such actions can be taken under legal aid, the whole exercise has not cost Sinn Fein a penny. But perhaps pounds 50,000 of ratepayers' money has been spent in unsuccessfully defending the council against Sinn Fein complaints.
Even opponents of Sinn Fein concede that its cases have been well chosen and carefully prepared. Last November, Lord Justice Murray was so impressed with the Sinn Fein evidence that he complimented its councillors on their 'genuine interest and enthusiasm' for the welfare of their constituents.
In only one case has Sinn Fein's hopes been dashed, when an attempt to unseat the MP for West Belfast, Dr Joe Hendron of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, failed last month. The republican hope had been to force a by-election in which Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein could have regained the seat. The court ruled that while Dr Hendron had acted illegally, he had done so inadvertently and should not be penalised.
None the less, Sinn Fein's regular use of the legal system has made other parties noticeably nervous about the prospect of being taken to court by the republicans. When a new Unionist lord mayor of Belfast, Herbert Ditty, was chosen last year, Sinn Fein sent him a solicitor's letter warning of legal action.
'That did the job,' one republican source said. 'Ditty treats us like the Crown Jewels now.' Some Unionist councillors are known to be nervous that they could face personal surcharges if they persist in contesting cases where they have little chance of success.
Sinn Fein has clearly moved a long way since the days when republicans turned their backs on judges and refused to recognise the court. No one believes, however, that the new tactic amounts to a sign that republicans are coming to accept the legitimacy of the court. Its opponents regard the phenomenon as the height of cynical hypocrisy.
'It's more than hypocrisy, it's a downright cheek and an abuse,' said Sammy Wilson, a Belfast loyalist councillor. 'They use the courts while the IRA forces judges to go round in armoured cars with a police escort. IRA bombs have cost millions of pounds of damage to courts, then Sinn Fein go to the same courts to ask for their rights. They actually appeared before one judge whose house had been attacked by a rocket. It's ridiculous. The Government should declare that Sinn Fein is linked to the IRA and ban them outright.'
Sinn Fein representatives lose little sleep over such points. Mairtin O Muilleoir, one of the councillors whose diligence was commended by Lord Justice Murray, spelt out the pragmatic approach. 'As far as I'm concerned, what the IRA's attitude is towards the courts is neither here nor there. We are in City Hall to represent our constituents and if somebody puts an obstacle in your way, you have to get round it, or over it, or under it.'
He would not concede that his party's successes in the courts suggest that the legal system might be fairer than Sinn Fein accepts. 'The cases we brought have been so obvious and so blatant that there could have been no other judgment.'
To suggestions that the courts were making political decisions, he said: 'I would hate to go back to the people of Upper Falls and say, 'Oh sorry, I could have done something but I preferred to remain aloof with the green flag wrapped around me'. I'd much rather go back and say, 'Yes, we did that, we got the change, we got the gain'. It makes sense and it's something we will continue to do.'
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