Dáil Éireann - Volume 328 - 05 May, 1981

Private Members' Business. - Criminal Justice Bill, 1981: First Stage (Resumed).

Debate resumed on the following motion:

That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to abolish the death penalty.

—(Deputy Dr. Browne.)

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Deputy Browne has moved that leave be given to introduce the Bill and this motion has been opposed. Deputy Browne has five minutes for an explanatory statement on the Bill.

Dr. Browne: As a man who has so enthusiastically expressed his support of the Pro-Life Campaign, and further, the [2151] man who so courageously pioneered reform of our laws on capital punishment here in his enlightened 1963 Criminal Justice Act — Deputy Haughey may recall that I supported him in the House on that issue — it is surprising to find that the Government of which he is now Taoiseach should decline to amend the existing laws permitting us to kill a fellow citizen as a punishment for murder. The compulsion to punish delinquence, at its origins, lies in the unconscious emotional levels of the personality and is not in itself the product of reason. Indeed, punishment inflicted by society on the criminal is in essence the same form of behaviour as that committed by the criminal. It can be argued indeed that in the case of judicial murder the punishment is even more horrible than is the crime.

As I have said elsewhere, I have opposed hanging for as long as I can recall. I had the distasteful experience in the fifties of being in a minority of two in a cabinet which hanged two men, one of whom I firmly believe was mentally defective.

Abolitionists are at times accused of an indifference to the suffering of the victims of the murder and of those bereaved by the violent death of a loved one. This is far from the truth. We simply do not believe in the barbaric principles of the old Talmudic laws that we must “take an eye for an eye”. Two wrongs never make a right.

On consideration, it must be seen that a law which permits judicial murder is hard to rationalise, unlike the act of murder itself which may be carried out in a moment of fear, jealousy, or uncontrollable anger or hate. Horrible and indefensible though a murder may be, it is at least comprehensible in terms of cause and effect. On the other hand, is there conceivable a murder more cold-blooded and unfeeling than that which follows the full process of law, which ends in the employment for a fee of usually a foreign hangman, a total stranger to us all and above all to the man to be hanged. There can be no animus whatever there to justify [2152] the awful act. Then with the hanging process there is what must be the painful agony of waiting for death. There is, too, the possibility of torture involved in the act of hanging in itself. Through a miscalculation the man to be hanged may be slowly and painfully strangled to death and not have his neck expeditiously broken as is the intention in hanging. A prison medical colleague of mine has told me of watching a tormented man being hanged and in his agony attempting to climb back up the hangman's rope. I understand it is for this reason that a wretched prison warden must stand by in order to fall on the victims lower limbs and by his weight break his neck and kill him. This is surely an obscene and ugly final act of humiliation which, carried out in cold blood on the man to be hanged or by the warden, is unworthy of men in any civilised society.

Hanging is wrong even if it were a deterrent, and I understand that the bulk of the evidence shows it not to be. Hanging is wrong because it is possible to hang the wrong man and there are well-documented cases to prove this. Recall that, unlike any other known penalty, hanging is irreversible; mistakes cannot be compensated for. In the interests of the community, imprisonment for life is all that is needed.

Finally, may I remind you that since many of us here profess to a Christian belief, there is a commandment which says with a marvellous terse clarity “Thou shalt not kill”. That exhortation from that source should surely matter to such a notoriously self-righteous Legislature as ours, particularly at a time like this when we continue to express our horror at the violence of men and women to one another in the North. Awful though these crimes may be, they do not include on their statutes this most cold-blooded crime of man again man, the judicial hanging of a fellow citizen by the neck until he is dead by order of the courts.

If the Government retain the power to hang the four men now under sentence of death in our own jails, is it not fair to say that, when it comes to cold-blooded Prime Ministers, Mrs. Thatcher is well matched by our own Prime Minister, [2153] Deputy Charles J. Haughey. If, on the other hand, the Government retain this terrible power to give to Deputy Haughey the power to play God and exercise royal prerogative and commute the sentences for electioneering purposes, this would be a particularly callous and cynical decision even for the notoriously cynical Prime Minister, Deputy Charles J. Haughey.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: The Standing Order allows for ten minutes, five minutes to the mover and five minutes to the Minister. But over the years a couple of minutes have been given to speakers from other parties if they wish to avail of it. Deputy O'Keeffe may have a few minutes.

Mr. O'Keeffe: I want to make the position of Fine Gael clear. The position of Fine Gael is that the party supports this Stage of the Bill on the basis that the House should have the opportunity of discussing the Bill on its Second Stage. On the Second Stage, if it is taken in this House, as far as Fine Gael is concerned there will be a free vote of the Members of this party.

Mr. Cluskey: The Labour Party are supporting this measure in an attempt to do away with the death penalty here. Unfortunately at present our country is best known abroad for violent death. It has now, by the activities of the Provisional IRA in particular, acquired that international reputation. There is clear evidence that the death penalty is not a deterrent to murder. More important, I believe, particularly at this time in Irish history, that we in this House who have continuously and repeatedly over the last 12 years condemned violence and murder, should avail of this opportunity to show that, while we condemn violent death, we do it in all circumstances and without qualification. In particular we should show that we are not prepared any longer to take human life in the name of Irish society.

Descriptions that I have read of the death penalty being imposed and of the [2154] effects that it has had on the people who are charged with the responsibility for carrying out that penalty clearly indicate that it is degrading and dehumanising to them and a continuance of it in our opinion continues to degrade Irish society. The argument will be made that at a time such as I have described, when Ireland is witnessing daily violent death within our island, it would not be appropriate to abolish the death penalty. I believe the reverse. I believe that that argument is totally wrong. There cannot be a more appropriate time for us, as legislators and representatives of our people, to give a clear and an unequivocal indication that we reject violent death in all circumstances and that, while we condemn the right of any individual or any group to take another person's life, we as a society are no longer prepared, in the name of that society, to take a human life. We support this Bill.

Minister for Justice (Mr. G. Collins): I have no doubt that Deputy Browne is activated by what appears to him to be the very best of motives in raising the issue of the death penalty in this House at this time. He is perfectly entitled to regard the carrying out of the death penalty as a form of murder, albeit a form committed by law. The death penalty has been the subject of rather intermittent debate in many countries for many years and several countries have removed it from their statute books, some of them quite recently. Such research as has been carried out on the subject suggests that the case for capital punishment as a deterrent to murder has not been proved and I think that the Government, and I myself in particular, are as aware as any Deputy in the House of the relevant facts and arguments. Nor do we yield to any Deputy in our claim to be compassionate towards our fellow citizens, be they convicted offenders or otherwise. Speaking for myself — and I am certain that all members of the Government would agree with me — I should be glad to be in a position to inform the House tonight that the Government had decided to abolish the death penalty entirely and [2155] to ensure that it is not carried out in the meantime.

However, I am not in a position to do that. At the moment, we are awaiting the final decision of the courts in the case of four men who already have been sentenced on capital murder charges, namely charges of murdering members of the Garda Síochána acting in the course of their duties. The Government may have to take a decision, in any or all of those cases, as to whether the sentence is to be carried out or some other sentence imposed. Such a decision will be taken, if it has to be taken, soberly and carefully and with due regard to the circumstances prevailing here. I am not authorised to say anything beyond that. I am prepared to say, however, that, whatever decisions might be taken in relation to any or all of those four cases, I do not think that the present time is a suitable one for the total repeal of the death penalty.

There has been a great deal of violence in this country over the last few years and I believe that very many reasonable and compassionate people genuinely believe that, despite the argument to the contrary which we all know and appreciate, the death penalty is a resource which our [2156] society should not deprive itself of at present, particularly when what is really at issue in so far as this country and our law are concerned, is the murder of gardaí and prison officers in the course of their duties. Many of those reasonable and compassionate people appreciate as well as anybody else the force of the argument that the abolition of the death penalty would be an affirmation of society's respect for human life and, as such, might have a beneficial influence, even on those whose respect for human life is not very great. However, there are circumstances, and many people think that the present circumstances are among them, when such nice calculations do not satisfy the basic need to ensure that society is in a position to protect itself adequately from its enemies.

Some people who would like to see the total abolition of capital punishment are very conscious of the fact that, were we to abolish it, and because of the violence of recent years, the pressure for arming the Garda would become extremely strong. Such a development could, of course, mean added risks to human life. The Government, therefore, oppose the Bill.

Question put.

The Dáil divided: Tá, 34; Níl, 63.

Barry, Myra.

Begley, Michael.

Belton, Luke.

Bermingham, Joseph.

Boland, John.

Browne, Noël.

Bruton, John.

Burke, Joan.

Burke, Liam.

Cluskey, Frank.

Cosgrave, Michael J.

Creed, Donal.

Deasy, Martin A.

Desmond, Barry.

Donnellan, John F.

FitzGerald, Garret.

Fitzpatrick, Tom (Cavan-Monaghan).

Griffin, Brendan.

Harte, Patrick D.

Horgan, John.

Keating, Michael.

Kelly, John.

McMahon, Larry.

Mannion, John M.

Mitchell, Jim.

O'Brien, William.

O'Keeffe, Jim.

O'Toole, Paddy.

Pattison, Séamus.

Quinn, Ruairí.

Ryan, John J.

Timmins, Godfrey.

Tully, James.

White, James.


Ahern, Bertie.

Ahern, Kit.

Allen, Lorcan.

Andrews, David.

Andrews, Niall.

Aylward, Liam.

Barrett, Sylvester.

Brady, Gerard.

Brady, Vincent.

Briscoe, Ben.

Browne, Seán.

Burke, Raphael P.

Callanan, John.

Calleary, Seán.

Cogan, Barry.

Collins, Gerard.

Conaghan, Hugh.

Connolly, Gerard.

Coughlan, Clement.

Cowen, Bernard.

Crinion, Brendan.

Cronin, Jerry.

Daly, Brendan.

Farrell, Joe.

Filgate, Eddie.

Fitzgerald, Gene.

Fitzpatrick, Tom. (Dublin South-Central).

Fitzsimons, James N.

Flynn, Pádraig.

Fox, Christopher J.

Gallagher, Dennis.

Haughey, Charles J.

Hussey, Thomas.

Keegan, Seán.

Kenneally, William.

Killeen, Tim.

Killilea, Mark.

Lawlor, Liam.

Lemass, Eileen.

Lenihan, Brian.

Leonard, Jimmy.

Leonard, Tom.

Leyden, Terry.

McCreevy, Charlie.

McEllistrim, Thomas.

Moore, Seán.

Morley, P.J.

Murphy, Ciarán P.

Nolan, Tom.

Noonan, Michael.

O'Connor, Timothy C.

O'Donoghue, Martin.

O'Hanlon, Rory.

O'Leary, John.

O'Malley, Desmond.

Power, Paddy.

Reynolds, Albert.

Smith, Michael. Walsh, Joe.

Walsh, Seán.

Wilson, John P.

Woods, Michael J.

Wyse, Pearse.

Tellers: Tá, Deputies B. Desmond and M. Cosgrave; Níl, Deputies Moore and Briscoe.

Question declared lost.