Capital Punishment—Motion.

Wednesday, 30 May 1956

Seanad Éireann Debate
Vol. 46 No. 2

First Page Previous Page Page of 11 Next Page Last Page

Professor Stanford: Information on William Bedell Stanford Zoom on William Bedell Stanford I move:—

That in the opinion of Seanad Eireann the Government should consider the question of introducing legislation to abolish capital punishment or to suspend it for an experimental period.

The Seanad and the Minister will, no doubt, have noticed that this motion is phrased in very moderate terms. There is no desire to coerce the Government or dictate any policy. We have phrased it simply to request them to consider what we think is becoming an urgent matter. This moderation is partly due, I think, to our desire to have no high feeling, or emotionalism, or lurid details, in our debate this evening. It is also, for my own part, due to the fact that I realise that the arguments in favour of retaining capital punishment are strong. I think it is a fairly close balance between the arguments for and against, but, after very careful consideration, I came to the conclusion that the balance of argument was in favour of modification or abolition of the death penalty. I also found that a good many citizens of this country, people whose opinions I respect, had the same view. Because I respect the arguments in favour of capital punishment, I am going to try to deal with, or, at least, to discuss, those arguments first.

I personally am inclined to be a conservative. I think the majority of the [173] people in this country also are inclined to be conservative, and I like it. We are inclined to say: “If this thing has been good enough for our ancestors for countless generations, why should we make a change now?” We are also inclined to ask why, if many nations throughout the world to-day believe that capital punishment is necessary for murder and for some other crimes, should we think that they are wrong. This argument from what I will call established custom is strong in the minds of many of us. In Ireland, we are cautious about making what might be called doctrinaire changes.

But I should like the Seanad to consider this argument from established custom a little more closely. In fact, if we go back before the Norman conquest in this country, we find that capital punishment was very much modified. I refer to the provisions of the Brehon Laws.

I have consulted a person who, I think we would all agree, is the highest authority in the world on the Brehon Laws. He tells me that, before the Normans came to Ireland, capital punishment was rare. It was almost entirely confined to offences against the king, the local king or the chieftain. Ordinary cases of homicide were atoned for by payment of a fine to the slain man's kindred, and this was to prevent a kin fight or a private war. Later, for a while, under the influence of the Normans in the early days of the kings the Irish chieftains levied the fine for themselves, and kept it for themselves. But on the whole capital punishment was comparatively rare in Ireland before the Normans came. Similarly, though this argument will not weigh so much with us, in Anglo-Saxon England before the Normans came, capital punishment was comparatively rare.

In fact, the rigorous law of capital punishment which we know in this country, and knew very much more rigorously 150 years ago, is essentially a Norman and a British introduction. Under British laws, as a matter of fact, as is well known to many here, I am sure, capital punishment was also exacted for larceny and many other felonies. That has been abolished [174] within the last 150 years. There have been changes in the law. The law is not immutable in this country, and capital punishment, as we know it, is not a native Irish institution.

As another example of the mutability of the law, the House will remember that hanging, drawing and quartering was valid in England until 1824. Slavery was legal and permissible until about 1770. Public opinion changed that. I am making the point that the law of capital punishment in this country is neither historical nor immutable. It was brought here chiefly by the Normans and it has changed considerably in the last century.

The Minister may have in mind another argument, the argument that in many countries of the world capital punishment is still considered necessary. When we say “many countries of the world”, we must remember that it has been abolished, and abolished with success, in many civilised countries of the world. Before the 1939 war—after it, there were some changes under the dictatorships, for obvious reasons—capital punish ment had been abolished in 13 countries in Europe, eight countries in South America and six States of the United States of America. It has been restored in some States of America as a necessary dettrent. I shall meet the implications of that later, but the fact remains that in 27 civilised States it is considered unnecessary to have capital punishment.

We have seen that our neighbour, England, is about to abolish capital punishment for most kinds of murder. That will bring certain practical difficulties in this country. England is going to join the large number of countries which think capital punishment is not necessary in its present rigour. So the argument from history is not valid. Capital punishment is not based on the law in this country from the earliest date. And it is not the law in many countries in Europe and the rest of the world to-day. That removes the argument which so many of us may feel in our conservative hearts—the argument that what was good enough for our ancestors is good enough for us.

I turn from these theoretical arguments [175] to the practical arguments for and against capital punishment in Ireland to-day. What are the main practical reasons given in favour of capital punishment? Why do a great many people say that we should retain it? There are three main practical reasons. First, many of us think of the old adage: an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. I have heard this point argued very strongly. It is the argument that death is the appropriate punishment for death. I feel that we could argue this endlessly. I can only give my own view on it, and, if Senators raise arguments in favour of that, I will try to reply to them. My own view is that, in terms of absolute morality, it is as wrong for the State deliberately to kill a man as for the individual deliberately to kill a man.

I put that bluntly and I mean it. If we really agree that the terrible finality of capital punishment is such that only God Almighty should exercise it, we will take that view. Expediency may confine us to turn that argument aside, but I repeat that ultimately, in my opinion, it is in terms of absolute morality, as wrong for the State to kill a man as for a man to kill. I know that there is endless controversy on that point and I will not pursue it further. I could try to submit further arguments at considerable length, but I will not do so.

The second argument in favour of retaining certain punishments is that they help towards the reformation of the criminal. That hardly arises in the case of capital punishment and we need not pursue it. A dead man is not capable of reformation. On the other hand, if we abolish capital punishment, or modify it, we are giving the criminal an opportunity of prolonged reformation to the full extent of his life.

The third argument is the really strong one. It is that capital punishment is an effective deterrent and preventive measure. Obviously, if a man is hanged for killing, he will not repeat his offence. What many people really stand on is this, that capital punishment [176] is necessary as a deterrent to other potential murderers. That is the strongest argument. If that argument holds, the case for abolition fails and the case for modification is weakened. If the death penalty was removed by the Irish Government to-morrow, some people would argue that murderers would become more frequent in Ireland as a result. I have heard the views of many responsible people who have thought this argument decisive— judges, police officers and prison warders.

In my opinion, it is a very weighty argument if a policeman or a prison warder says: “If you cease to hang murderers, our work will become very much more dangerous. Criminals will kill us far more readily when they know that the worst they can suffer is an increased period of imprisonment.” If this were a certain fact, I would not be pleading my case here this evening. If I were convinced that that was beyond aye or nay, I would be in favour of retaining capital punishment. But is it a certain fact? Is it anything more than a fear? It certainly has not been proved by any statistics from countries where capital punishment has been abolished that murders have increased as a result of its abolition.

On the other hand, policemen and prison warders have often been attacked and killed by criminals in countries where there is capital punishment. It is certainly, therefore, not an absolute deterrent. The facts, and I have read all the available statistics and literature on this subject, show that capital punishment is not a complete deterrent. The Department of Justice has kindly provided me with some figures on capital punishment in this country since 1922. They show that since 1st April, 1922, 89 people were sentenced to death in the Irish courts; that is nearly three people a year who were not deterred by capital punishment. Though the death penalty is there, still murders happen. And there may be other murderers who escape detection. It is not an absolute deterrent. History shows that even the most terrible punishments and the most terrible threats of punishment [177] have never been absolute deterrents. Burning, torture, hanging, drawing and quartering have failed to deter people who felt they should commit certain offences. In the last 160 years of the history of Ireland dozens of people have been undeterred by such penalties —among them, I am glad to say, three graduates of Trinity College, Dublin, who were undeterred by hanging, drawing and quartering, undeterred from serving their country as they thought right.

It is not an absolute deterrent. Even what appears to be the most efficacious penalty will never be an absolute deterrent. In fact—and I hope the Seanad will not consider this an oversubtle argument: I think it is a valid one—from a psychological point of view it is arguable that the murderer who plans in advance will assume success in escaping detection, while the passionate murderer will not consider the probability of a penalty at all. So I question whether either in the case of the long-scheming murderer or the passionate murderer capital punishment is a particularly strong deterrent. Neither the murderer who lays careful plans nor the man who strikes in anger will think or believe that he will face the gallows.

Now, in these remarks I have tried to face the main arguments in favour of retaining capital punishment. I have tried to show that they are not decisive, not even the argument that our police, our prison warders, and others, may suffer if hanging is removed. I turn now to the positive side of my case, the arguments for abolition or modification of the present law. Out of very many possible arguments, I select four which weigh most heavily with me. The first is on the ground of common humanity. It is not really an argument. It is an appeal, but I think a valid appeal. I think all of us have the utmost reluctance to approve of the killing of a fellow man even when it is by a judicial decision. On the grounds of common humanity, we shrink from death in almost any circumstances. This kind of consideration may, I hope, influence some. Others may think it is not an argument at all. I shall not dwell on it.

[178] The second argument is the fact, as I have already mentioned, that many civilised countries to-day get on perfectly well without capital punishment. I could give a list of them. They are given in this Royal Commission on Capital Punishment, 1949 to 1953. They are countries whose opinion is worth considering. The third argument is the possibility of a mistaken verdict by juries. I shall refer to that in a moment. The fourth argument, and this is strongly against retaining capital punishment, is the effect of executions on all those concerned with executions. Some of these effects will be made worse, I suggest, if the Republic is isolated by a change in the law of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

On the first argument, as to the possibility of a mistake by the police and by the courts, there are cases on record where convicted murderers have subsequently been proved, or virtually proved, innocent. It is difficult—in fact I think it is impossible—to get any Government or any Minister for Justice to admit a mistake of this kind. That is quite understandable. I am not suggesting for a moment that any mistake of this kind has been made in Ireland since 1922. But, in England, there are certain cases that have caused grave public disquiet.

There was the case of Timothy Evans about six years ago; very many people believe that he was innocent. There was the case of the famous Oscar Slater. He was sentenced to hang in May, 1909. The sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Then the Irish author, Conan Doyle, took up his case. After a long campaign he was proved, 19 years later, to be innocent of the crime and the sentence was annulled. If that man had not been reprieved, he would have been hanged, though innocent.

Many people have shown, with considerable reasonableness, the risk of error in identifying a criminal. We have often seen the disagreement of expert witnesses in the court. For example, in 1925 Norman Thorne had three medical witnesses who swore that death, as described by the prosecution, was impossible. He was hanged. In 1953, another person was [179] hanged, despite the evidence of a former chief pathologist for the police. He was on her side and he said that she was innocent on pathological grounds. She was hanged. Far back in 1865, but I think the quotation is valid, Sir Fitzroy Kelly, a former attorney-general, said before a Royal Commission sitting then that “formidable numbers of innocent men have been executed.” Formidable numbers of innocent men have been executed: that may be an exaggeration, but if two or three innocent men have been executed in the last 50 years and if two or three innocent men will be executed in the next 50 years it seems to me one of the gravest reasons for abolishing or modifying the death penalty.

The fourth argument to which I attach considerable importance is the argument stemming from the effect on others—on the people involved in the verdict and execution. The effect on the jury is in a curious way two-fold. On the one hand, one quite often finds a reluctance to return a verdict of murder. A guilty man may therefore escape because of the death penalty. I quote from a book by Gerald Gardiner, a Queen's Counsel, entitled: “Capital Punishment as a Deterrent.” He is a partisan. I think I should state that; but his opinion is worth considering. He says:—

“The only way to stop verdicts of manslaughter which should be murder, to stop juries sending sane men to Broadmoor and to increase the conviction rate to the level which the facts justify is to abolish capital punishment.”

That is one effect on juries. The other is the terrible psychological strain on any jury which has to consider a murder verdict. I shall not dwell on this. It is clear to all—some here may have served on murder trials. This terrible psychological strain is not, indeed, something that should be shirked if it is absolutely necessary and desirable. But I think it is not absolutely necessary and desirable.

I shall not dwell either on the argument of ad hominem or ad ministrum, [180] but I think we must also take into account the appalling strain there must be on the Minister for Justice and his Department when he has to consider whether or not a criminal should be reprieved. I am not going to dwell on this. One can easily imagine the awful strain it must be on any man in that case. The fact is, as I have stated, that there have been 89 people sentenced to death since 1922 and of these 48 were reprieved and 35 were executed. That means on 35 occasions the Minister had to exercise the terrible responsibility of sending a human being to the gallows. I am sure no Minister wants to shirk his duty in that regard. But is it necessary?

There is again the strain on the prison staff and on the other convicts in the prison. We have all probably read lurid details. I hope during this debate nobody will dwell on lurid details of this nature. But we all know that the strain on the prison staffs and the other convicts in the prison is of terrible magnitude. There is also the strain on the executioner. I would like to emphasise that I hope nobody will go into lurid details. But at the same time we must consider all the facts.

There is also the effect of executions on the public. I do not think that this is as bad in Ireland as it is in some countries, to judge from the publicity given to them in some newspapers there. But even in Ireland I think there is some risk of morbid and unhealthy interest, stimulated by disreputable newspapers. If eventually Ireland becomes the only country in West Europe which has the death penalty, apart from France, the spot-lights of the sensational newspapers will be turned on any executions in this country with tenfold strength. They will not have anything of that type in their own country, if the death penalty is abolished there, and I am quite sure that they would then give full publicity to executions in this country.

I would go further and say that in a few pathological cases criminals are attracted to kill by the publicity and the celebrity that they see other murderers enjoying on their execution day. I think this could occur in not [181] more than one in 1,000 or one in 10,000 cases. But it could be an influence in some of those cases.

There are other factors on which I will not dwell now. There are the effects on the condemned man's relatives and the effects on the condemned man himself. Apart from the actual execution, the criminal is given no length of time for amendment of life; no long time for a gradual reformation.

I think there is enough in what I have said, and there are other arguments, to justify our request that the Government should consider the present arguments for and against capital punishment. Probably other speakers will raise other arguments. Before concluding I would like to refer to one grave practical difficulty which the Minister and his Department have in mind. That is the question of what would happen if capital punishment is abolished. The alternative would appear to be a sterner life sentence.

Personally I think that a true life sentence would be in many cases a more cruel punishment than execution. I personally hope there will be no consideration of a life sentence for the whole of a life. It does seem to me, and to many of those who have written on the subject, that a sentence of 20 years, with power to imprison for life in certain circumstances, would meet the case. The criminal would be kept under close observation and would have careful after care when he leaves prison. There is a good deal about this in the report of the Royal Commission on Capital Punishment.

Incidentally, the figures in that report show that out of 156 people reprieved and released from prison in England only one became a murderer again. Only one relapsed, so to speak, out of a total of 156. That is not a high percentage. The percentages elsewhere are lower still.

I should like to add that it was on this report that Sir Edward Gower says he was converted to the abolitionists' point of view. He had been an advocate of capital punishment, but he says that his views were changed as a result of this inquiry. Before the inquiry, he was strongly in favour of [182] capital punishment and now he is strongly against it.

To return to the question of punishment and what would be effective: I think a lengthened sentence of 20 years would constitute a sufficient penalty. If the Minister thinks it would not and if he thinks that in certain circumstances only death is a sufficient penalty, then I would ask him to modify the conditions. I personally would prefer abolition. But at least modification of the present law would go a considerable distance towards what I consider is the right end.

I will sum up now. In my opinion, and I think in the opinion of many others in this country and elsewhere, the death penalty is not necessary nor is it efficient as a deterrent. In my opinion the arguments put forward strongly favour the abolition of the death penalty or at least its modification. The arguments in favour of this are: common humanity; the fact that many civilised countries have already abolished capital punishment without any clear increase in the murder rate; the fact that the death penalty causes grave strain on many of those concerned with the execution and evokes an unhealthy interest and curiosity; the fact that there is a danger of a miscarriage of justice in murder cases, a danger that at some time an innocent man may be hanged.

I propose then that, in the opinion of Seanad Eireann, the Government should consider the question of introducing legislation to abolish capital punishment or to suspend it for an experimental period.

Dr. McHugh: Information on Roger Joseph McHugh Zoom on Roger Joseph McHugh In rising to second this motion which has been so ably proposed by Senator Stanford, I should like to begin by saying that probably a good deal of the discussion will concern itself with the morality or immorality of the death penalty. There will probably be two groups in the Seanad. Group A will hold that the death penalty itself is evil and immoral and they will probably consider executions in detail and their effect on the police, the warders and others concerned. Group B will probably hold that the death penalty is a unique method of [183] retribution; that it is a moral necessity. They will, perhaps, consider a brutal murder in detail and show that it is only by preserving the death penalty that such brutal murders may be prevented. Again, Group a may answer that argument by considering the suffering which an execution inflicts upon innocent people as, for example, the relations of the executed man. I think that these arguments to a large extent will cancel each other out.

Though I firmly adhere to the former group, Group A, I prefer to concentrate on the question which, I think, will influence most of the Senators: is the death penalty a better deterrent than imprisonment? That question has been raised by Senator Standford. It may be argued that the death penalty helps to maintain popular abhorrence of murder, but I should like to point out, in answer to that argument, which I anticipate here, that the death penalty for theft, which was preserved until the third decade of the last century, never caused theft to be held in the same abhorrence as murder. I would further point out that hangmen are not notably beloved by many people and, in fact, are held in greater abhorrence than even condemned criminals.

In relation to this matter, we can be guided to some extent, as Senator Stanford has indicated, by some of the findings of the British Royal Commission on Capital Punishment. The summary of its findings, which appeared in The Listener for January 19th, 1956, may interest some Senators. I propose to read one paragraph from it:—

The commission emphasises that no reliable inference can be drawn from the simple comparison of figures from abolition countries with those from death penalty countries for the same period. Differences in outlook, character, in social and economic conditions may invalidate any inference from that fact, even where it is a fact, that the homicide rate is lower in the abolition countries. Yet there are States in [184] North America, for example, and in Australia, similar in character, with figures compiled on a similar basis where the murder trends are similar though some had no capital punishment and others had. Moreover, there are certain groups of neighbouring States, for example, North and South Dakota in America, Queensland and New South Wales in Australia, which present peculiarly different materials for sound inference: for, luckily, in each of these groups one country has retained the death penalty during a period in which another member of the group either abolished it or restored it after previous abolition. So here we have something which is rare and valuable in inquiries of this sort—a controlled group to test the effect of abolition or restoration; and it shows an important fact. In these cases the rise and fall of the murder rate was nearly the same for each of the countries in the group whether the death penalty was used or not and whether executions were frequent or not. This made no difference. So for these countries at least the evidence shows that the rise and fall of the murder rate is not conditioned by the death penalty but by some other factor.”

That is a summary of very carefully considered and carefully digested evidence in the Report of the Royal Commission on Capital Punishment, and I think that these findings should weigh with us. The difficulty has been to get a proper parallel between countries which have abolished the death penalty and those that preserve it. I do also say that the Royal Commission, the summary of whose findings I have quoted, held that the death penalty acts as a deterrent, as far as they can ascertain, only in the case of organised criminal classes, and then only in cases where the police are involved. In other words, the organised gang murderer will think twice before shooting a policeman, if he knows that the penalty is death. They found that only in that group did the death penalty seem to operate as a genuine deterrent. In this country, we are happily free from that kind of criminal class which will stop at [185] nothing to remove people from their path in order to achieve some financial gain or for some other similar motive.

On the whole, any of our people who have been found guilty of murder seem to have acted largely under the influence of passion, or of drink, or of some other factors which could not, by any stretch of the imagination, be called cold blooded calculation.

Finally, I would say that I base my argument largely on the test of personal responsibility. I would ask myself a question like this: would I be willing to pull the lever that sends a convicted murderer, even a man convicted of a very brutal murder, perhaps, of a child, to his doom? I would not. I think it is important to note that hangmen have to be imported— that no citizen will take personal responsibility for it. I think that is dictated by considerations other than considerations of possible revenge.

I do not believe we should shelter behind our institutions. Our institutions must embody our convictions, and I refuse to believe that Ireland is almost alone in the civilised world in retaining the conviction that the death penalty is absolutely essential. It is, of course, notable that there is a strong move at present in the Six Counties to retain it, despite the likely passing of the English Act of abolition. I do not argue that, simply because the SixCounty Government prefers to retain the death penalty, we should therefore propose to abolish it, but I do say we are often critical of the form of Government practised there, and are we to imitate its worst procedure at our peril? I strongly support the motion.

Mr. Cox: Information on Arthur Cox Zoom on Arthur Cox The best thought that I have been able to give to this very critical and important subject is that, in my opinion, the death penalty should be retained but that it should be exercised with the very greatest care. In fact, I think that is the case. I understand that since 1948 there has been only one execution in the State. One might compare that with the fact that, in the same period, there were 1,706 people killed on the roads by motor cars. They are quite different things; but I think the fact that in six years there has been only one [186] execution does show that this country is taking the view that the death penalty should be imposed only in the very rarest circumstances.

I believe that the maintenance of the death penalty on the Statute Book is a deterrent, and I believe also that its existence there does tend to emphasise the terrible gravity of the crime of murder. Senators have discussed whether the death penalty is a deterrent or not. No one can really answer that. I am glad to say that I have not had very much personal experience of murder cases; but I have had a certain small experience, and on occasion I have had the grave responsibility of having to look after the defence of people charged with murder. There is no doubt whatever that in such a case the person accused, if it is clear that he is going to be found guilty, will always seek imprisonment rather than the death sentence, even at the terrible cost of escaping the death sentence by being found to be of unsound mind. To the ordinary person trying to defend such a man or faced with that position, one fate seems almost worse than the other. There is no doubt whatever that the effort of the unfortunate man who has got into that position is to secure, if possible, a life sentence rather than a death sentence. No one can really say whether the death sentence is a deterrent, but from my little experience, I am convinced that it is a deterrent.

The first duty of the State or any such organisation is to protect the citizens, and the first duty of this State is to protect the lives of those who live here. If there is any reason for believing that the death penalty is a deterrent, then I would say it should be retained, and, as I have said, I personally do not doubt that it is a deterrent. I am not sure that I agree with the point of view that seems to have been expressed by the previous speakers, that punishment should be excluded. Speaking now as a Christian, I rather think that crime does merit punishment and that there should not be too much sympathy for a person who has been justly found to have committed a terrible crime. I believe personally that the death penalty is a deterrent and that the element of shame involved [187] in it is also a deterrent. I hope and believe that I am not in any way a bloodthirsty person, and any little experience I have had in such cases has shown me the horror of them.

I agree with the present motion in the sense that it is obviously a most important matter and one which requires the closest attention of the Government. I can quite see that the present very strong movement in England towards abolishing the death penalty does give one very grave cause for thought. At the same time, reading as well as I could the debates in the English Parliament, I could not help feeling that a great number of the speakers were influenced far more by their human and natural sympathies than perhaps by absolute, cold logic.

There is one part of the present motion, however, with which I would disagree completely and that is the suggestion that if the Government take action in this matter they should introduce an experimental period. That seems to me to be utterly horrible, to suggest that, let us say, for five years a person would know that he was safe to murder and safe from the death penalty, but that possibly if he were foolish enough to commit a murder five minutes after midnight at the end of the fifth year, something different might happen. While I am against the death penalty being abolished, I would be far more against it being abolished for an experimental period. Whatever decision is taken should be a final and complete decision.

While I am in favour of retaining the death penalty, I also think, and think very strongly, that it should practically never be exercised. I agree with what the previous speakers have said when they state that probably in this country there are very few, if any, cases, of what I would call deliberate murder. I believe that in almost every case it is insanity, sudden emotion or some other force which suddenly seizes a man and carries him away, possibly almost against his own wishes. Therefore, I would say that the death penalty should very seldom be exercised.

It would seem to me that the consequences [188] of abolishing the death penalty would produce an almost more horrible result and that would be the strong inclination and almost the necessity in that event of making the punishment imprisonment absolutely for life. As matters stand at present, if the death penalty is there, there is always the feeling that insanity, some great emotion or some other reason would justify release after a certain period. If the death penalty were abolished completely, the reaction would be to make complete life imprisonment almost unbearable, and one can hardly imagine anything more horrible.

This subject is one which anybody trying to approach it sensibly must approach almost with fear and trembling. One is dealing with the lives of human beings. One is dealing with the safety of all the people who live in lonely houses throughout the country and, not least, one is dealing perhaps with the safety of the police and all those who are entrusted with the maintenance of order and who fortunately, in this country, are able to carry out their duties unharmed.

I understand that on the Committee Stage of the Bill in the English Parliament, an amendment was carried retaining the death penalty in the case of a convicted criminal who had murdered. This is a matter which should be considered by the Government. I am quite unmoved by the historical argument as to what the Anglo-Saxons did or what was in the Brehon code. I am also quite unmoved by the argument that at one time the property-owning class had to protect its property by savage sentences very often against the poor and the distressed. I think these are completely different things which are utterly irrelevant. I believe, in considering this matter, the Government is, after all, in a very different position from that in which we are. We are debating this almost like a debating society, but when the Government do so, they are taking the lives of men in their hands, and carrying much graver responsibility.

As I said before, the death penalty should be retained. I do not believe [189] man is not entitled to punish for grave offences; I do think that life is a very sacred thing and I believe life can best be safeguarded and protected by keeping on the Statute Book this terrible law, by keeping it there as a possibility, or as a threat, and as, in fact, it has been kept, in the wisdom of our Governments, practically since the institution of our State, and in the wisdom of our judges who in these matters advise our Government, possibly without ever putting that terrible sword into action except in the gravest and worst case.

I am not in the least influenced by what other countries may have done. I think we have to consider the position here in this matter. I have no doubt whatever of what the Government should do, although I fully realise that in deciding to keep the death penalty, it may do so almost with distaste, but I think it is its duty to do so.

Dr. Sheehy Skeffington: Information on Owen Lancelot Sheehy Skeffington Zoom on Owen Lancelot Sheehy Skeffington I should like to identify myself with the proposals in this motion, and I also hope that it will be passed. Senator Stanford has already dealt very well with the notions of the various purposes for which the death penalty is retained. I think he has disposed of the idea that it does in fact act as a deterrent, but I should just like to pause and ask the House to consider whether, if the purpose of the death penalty is really to act as a deterrent, you should not make it more terrible and inflict torture, make the agony more lingering, if the purpose is really to instil fear in the heart of the murderer. In other words, if you introduce as many humane measures as you can into the process of hanging, are you not in fact rendering it less a deterrent than if you leave it in all its brutal horror? In France, up to an astonishingly recent time—within my memory—it was the practice to carry out executions in public in the open street. A guillotine was set up, and the object of that was to show the public just what an execution means, for the purpose of instilling fear into potential murderers. I think that notion is a horrifying one, though it is logical, if you regard the death penalty as necessary because it is a deterrent. [190] The effect of this, as has been pointed out, is in fact the contrary. People came for the sight, for the show, for the spectacle, and it even had the effect—that I think has been demonstrated in some of the recent reports about the death penalty in Britain— that people had been led to commit murder by pondering and reflecting on the notoriety of such trials and executions.

The question of other countries has been dealt with, and I do not want to go into that, although I disagree with Senator Cox on that. I do not think we can be quite indifferent to what has been done in other countries—my nationalism is not quite so complacent as his. He feels that we can decide for ourselves almost without reference to what happens elsewhere. I feel, on the contrary, that we can look outside and perhaps learn. If we reject the notion that the death penalty should be retained as a deterrent, for what other purpose then can it be retained? I hope nobody here thinks we should retain the death penalty for somebody who has killed simply for the purpose of exacting vengeance—“an eye for an eye.” Even in the Old Testament phrasing of the incident, what was asked for in it was, in fact, that not more than an eye should be exacted for the loss of an eye. It was, in other words, not a precept of brutality, as has sometimes been suggested, but a precept for the purpose of restraining those who would seek greater vengeance than the wrong that had been done to them.

I think that, even interpreted in such a way, the doctrine of an eye for an eye is a brutal and savage one, one, I think, that ought to have been superseded by a doctrine containing more mercy, a gentler, nobler one, one which hesitates even in the case of murder to cast the first stone. It is sometimes said—and I think, at least, it has been hinted at by Senator Cox— that there is sometimes a good deal of sentiment or emotion about those who want the death penalty abolished. We hear it said sometimes: “You are not thinking of the victim or the victim's family, but you are thinking only of the poor murderer. You are not thinking [191] of the family of the victim, and they demand that on account of the murder of their relation, there must be a death, another life sacrificed.”

I think I may—and it is partly my reason for speaking this evening—speak as the son of a murdered man whose murderer was found guilty of murder in a military court of law—guilty but insane—and who was detained for not quite two years in jail and then released and as far as I know, is still alive in Canada. It is because of that I feel I can speak on this argument about the victim's family from my own personal experience as the son of a victim. My father was murdered when he was 37, and I can say that my father—and I can say this with certainty—would not have wanted the death penalty to have been exacted in the case of the man who killed him. He would emphatically not have wanted vengeance to be exacted.

My mother, whom I knew better, and who was implacable in her desire to show up all the official attempts to stifle the truth in relation to that particular deed, had no personal vindictiveness whatsoever towards the murderer, and, were she alive to-day, would speak very vehemently on behalf of this motion. I think it is untrue, and I think it is untrue in the generality of cases, that the families of the victims are crying out for blood. I think, on the contrary, that the fact that death and what it means has been brought home to them makes them shrink in horror from the thought even of the death of the murderer.

It is compellingly pointed out, as it has been to-night, and I think it is another argument that should be mentioned, that you cannot be sure, that human beings are fallible and that you cannot in fact be absolutely certain, 100 per cent. certain, in any case, and, therefore, that the risk of executing an innocent person is always there, unless you are prepared to believe that a court of law, with all the apparatus of law and the jury, can reach such a degree of near certainty as to be infallible, which is a thing I personally cannot accept. I will not go into details but there have been two cases in England recently which have [192] shocked the public conscience and a near presumption that an innocent man was in fact executed.

The point I would like to make is that all other sentences apart from the death penalty can be revoked and revised. Once the death penalty has been carried out, nothing more can be done about it; it is final. A man who is sentenced to life imprisonment can be released if it is discovered that he is innocent. The death penalty is final and ought to presuppose a final and infallible human judgment, and, therefore, I would say that, since that cannot be presupposed, it is a wrong method.

It has been pointed out by several that this country has had a recent record of mercy, humanity, and I think we all ought to applaud the various Governments for that fact, that in recent years there has been only one execution. We have, all of us, a distaste for the whole apparatus, for the whole machinery. It has been mentioned that we have had to import hangmen, and it has even been suggested that you would not be able to get an Irishman to do the job. I wish we could believe that. I am afraid that, if the post were to be advertised in any country in the world, including our country, you would get volunteers.

I should like to say, also, that it used to be the hope of my mother, who did many sentences in jail, that when we got our freedom here, owing to the fact that most of our leaders had had experience of the inside of a cell, we should take the lead in many matters of penal reform and it was her disappointment to note that those of our leaders who knew the jails from personal experience did very little indeed to institute penal reform. I am glad to say that there has been some change lately there, but I would like to think that because of this personal experience we might be ahead of Britain, for instance, our nearest neighbour, rather than lagging behind.

On this matter of the abolition of capital punishment we have lagged behind. I should have felt prouder if we had abolished the death penalty before they did so in Britain, but I think we must recognise the nobility [193] of the present debate in the House of Commons and the fact that people are treating this matter with dignity, with concern and in a manner which makes one admire those who are so considering it. I do not want just to praise those who are in favour of abolition but all of those who are bringing their minds and consciences to bear on the problem.

I do not want to say very much more except that I view murder with horror. I view killing with horror. I feel that for us as a society to become involved in a killing, however judicial, however carefully prepared, with whatever preliminaries, is a horrible thing. I think we may say in this country that we have had in our history too many executions of all kinds and the shades of those men and women who have suffered that fate, for whatever reason, might well be standing behind us now and urging us to do honour to our country by abolishing the death penalty.

I should like, therefore, to support the terms of this motion and to say, let us go a little further than we have gone in recent years, when the application of the death penalty has been minimal. Let us go a little further, and let us urge the Government to consider its abolition altogether, never to be reinstituted.

Professor Fearon: Information on William Robert Fearon Zoom on William Robert Fearon I shall not say very much, but with the exception of the contribution by the last speaker, I feel there has been a certain amount of unreality about this discussion. In some ways, of course, it is an established, old topic, the ordinary schoolhoy debating topic, but we are debating it here in circumstances that make it very different from the debates on the same theme in other circles. Here we are in contact with the actual springs that control these things. We are talking in the presence of those who may have to decide by their own action whether a man will live or die. We also are talking in the presence of those whose lives have been affected very much indeed by the circumstances that are at the moment being debated. I, for one, hope that the Government will consider these matters, but I, for [194] two, feel that still there are some things that require to be said.

I do not believe that most of the previous speakers have really brought the subject up-to-date. It is all very well to talk about the history of capital punishment. The problem is that the saboteur to-day can inflict far more injury on his fellowmen and on the State than he could at any time in the history of the world. He can put a bomb in an aeroplane; he can poison a reservoir; he can release the most awful bacteriological substances. I will not dwell on that. I am not going to become sensational. It seems to me that, at this present time in the world's crisis, to require the State to forgo the terrible, but inevitable, I think, weapon of the death penalty is really asking too much. I think the modern State must just keep that penalty. Treason to-morrow will be a very different thing from treason yesterday. Disaster and damage and attacks on the nation to-morrow will be far more serious than they have been in the past, instruments now are so powerful, and it is no argument to say that, when a war arises, legislation will at once restore the death penalty. Wars do not arise now; they are on one before one knows, and it is entirely essential for the State to retain this procedure.

Having said that, I do believe that the procedure can be modified and brought into line with the very humane desires of the previous speaker. Certainly, there should be recognised grades in murder and that, of course, will have to be worked out. I believe that the Government should have a commission to consider this. There will be the different types. I do not propose to go into the psychology of this, about which much has been written. I do not want to make a speech at all. I have not come, as you realise, prepared to speak, but I was stirred.

The other question is this wretched business of hanging. I do feel that hanging is the most abominable type of execution and I am perfectly certain that better and more effective methods could be introduced. Electrocution, if anything, is worse than hanging. I think the Government could very profitably appoint a small committee [195] to consider methods of execution. The experiences of those taking part in hanging, with its dreadful ceremony, its terrible ceremonial and set up, however hardened they are, must be terrible and, as previous speakers have said, the thoughts of the relatives when the time is coming on and they are visualising what is happening must be dreadful. I am certain that modern science could provide us with much more effective substitutes for this grisly and horrible and, I think, completely barbarous—even though it is supposed to be very quick, but we are not quite sure about that—method of execution. Meanwhile, until we undergo a general reform, I, for one, hope that the State will not be so rash as to forgo the right of the death penalty for some of the atrocious crimes that are possible in the world as it is to-day.

Mr. Burke: Information on Denis Burke Zoom on Denis Burke I wish to support the case that has been made by Senator Cox and Senator Fearon for the retention of the death penalty. I believe that the solution of this problem rests, in the final analysis, with the Government. The Government must be allowed to have the weapons which are necessary to have the law respected. This is, in these countries, we hope, an enlightened age. As Senator Cox said, there has been only one execution here since 1948. I hope that, in the next eight years, we shall have no case of an execution, but I sincerely hope we will retain the death sentence. The Government may grant a reprieve to persons where it can be shown that the circumstances were such that the murder was not premeditated, or where it can be shown that there were other extenuating circumstances. In my opinion, the right, duty and responsibility of the Government must be to protect the citizen.

I remember discussing these matters many years ago with a theologian. He said to me that if a country was in a state of barbarism—say, a colonial country—one might be entitled to take life for the protection of one's property and might be morally justified in doing so, if conditions were such that property could not be protected unless the citizen shot on suspicion. In the [196] early days of the last century in the Middle West, I understand that the only way survival was possible was by being “quick on the trigger.” We have now reached a stage in this country where we have found it necessary to have only one execution in the past eight years and it is possible that we shall not have an execution in the next eight years.

There are people who, in passion, temper, lust or a spirit of revenge, or for some other reason, will commit murder. The fact that the Minister for Justice retains the power to use the death sentence in case of necessity to safeguard the wide interests of all citizens seems to me to be a great deterrent, I want to support what has been said in this respect both by Senator Cox and Senator Fearon. I have been told that out in the bush in Australia, out where the law is not as well observed as it is in the more settled parts of the country, there is a tendency, if somebody is murdered, for the friends of the murdered person to remove the person who committed that murder. If the death sentence had not been removed, what would happen is that that would become the responsibility of the police and maybe the second man would not lose his life at all. Maybe he would not need to lose his life. However, it will be seen that where cases like that arise, the people will take the law into their own hands.

I remember reading a book years ago by an Irish-American named Sullivan. The name of the book was Look at Chicago. The gangster elements themselves did more to settle the position in America at the time than anybody else, because they liquidated each other. I believe that if you removed the death sentence, you would have cases of people going out—to use a vulgar expression—“gunning” for somebody as a form of revenge, if the State was not prepared to do it.

No Government in this country should take the responsibility of doing away with the death sentence. I believe it will be used only for the purpose of deterring murder of the worst type. A very fine and interesting case has been made by Senator Stanford and other Senators, but I do [197] not believe that in Ireland there is any question of an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth. If a man is executed here, he is executed purely for the sake of justice and principally for the common good in order to see to it that murder will not be committed and so that it will act as a deterrent to other people who might feel they could take life.

Mr. Bergin: Information on Patrick Bergin Zoom on Patrick Bergin I support the motion. I am glad it has reached this stage. I am sure it is all of 18 years since I was associated with a society that conducted an active campaign against capital punishment. The question then seemed to die down. Now, because of protests made in other countries, I suppose the question is revived here. For as long as I can remember, I have had a horror of capital punishment. I do not know to what religion the theologian to whom Senator Burke referred belonged, but in my religion it was certainly never thought that any man could take life for the protection of his property. I believe, as I was taught to believe, that the State has a right to take life, if it finds it necessary to do so, but I think we have reached a stage in our development in this country when it is no longer necessary to take a life, even if murder has been committed.

A great deal of thought has gone into this matter and a great number of books and papers have been written about it. If we go over the recent debates in the British House of Commons, I think we can get a consensus of all that was written and said and thought on the matter. The fact that they have reached certain decisions justifies this motion, in my opinion, which merely asks our Government to examine the situation and to consider whether or not we should put an end to the wilful killing of other people. No matter what we say, when we boil it all down, we have to admit that what the State does on the morning of an execution is wilfully to kill somebody because they have been convinced that he killed somebody else. As Senator Sheehy Skeffington said, man is finite and all groups of men are finite. When they kill a person, they perform an action that belongs to the Infinite Being. That is my belief and [198] that is the reason I support the motion.

Mr. Kissane: Information on Eamon Kissane Zoom on Eamon Kissane As yet, I have an open mind as to whether the time is ripe for the abolition of capital punishment in this country. There are many things to be said in favour of it and, of course, there are some things to be said against it, as in most cases. In any event, Seanad Éireann is not being called upon this evening to make any decision. What we are doing is merely requesting the Government to consider the question of the abolition of capital punishment and I take it that that has arisen mainly because of what has happened across the water in Britain. There are people who hold that we should not take any notice sometimes of what they do in Britain, the circumstances of the situation here not being entirely similar.

We remember that that was argued in connection with the raising of the bank rate and the Government at the time seemed to take up a rather independent attitude, but I am afraid that that independent attitude was not maintained for very long and that the circumstances at the time, international and otherwise, compelled the Government to take what they considered was the necessary action, but in this case also I submit that we cannot afford to close our eyes to what is happening in the British Parliament.

The measure for the abolition of capital punishment has passed the House of Commons, with some little reservation which it is not necessary to mention here this evening. It has not yet, of course, passed the House of Lords, but I should imagine that, since this motion appeared on the Order paper, a few months ago, the Government would have given the matter some consideration. I think it would be expected that the responsible Minister would give us some idea of what the Government's attitude is towards this very important question, as, indeed, I said at the outset that is exactly what the motion seeks—to get consideration from the Government as to whether they propose to follow in the footsteps of the [199] British and come to some decision as to what should be done.

The history of capital punishment is a very interesting one and anyone who has studied the matter will see that, up to medieval times, capital punishment was administered for even such a simple thing as petty larceny.

Professor Hayes: Information on Michael Hayes Zoom on Michael Hayes Much later than medieval times.

Mr. Kissane: Information on Eamon Kissane Zoom on Eamon Kissane Even later than medieval times.

Professor Hayes: Information on Michael Hayes Zoom on Michael Hayes The 19th Century.

Mr. Kissane: Information on Eamon Kissane Zoom on Eamon Kissane At that time, people were hanged for the larceny of anything the value of which was more than 12 pence. What one would infer from that is that the social order has been changing so much over the years that I think it is only right this question should be considered in the light of the social order we have here to-day. Times are changing and social habits are changing in every country. That is why I say it would be well if the Government gave the matter full consideration and gave us later what the result of that consideration was.

I had hoped that even here this evening we would get some statement from the Minister as to what the Government's attitude is. Indeed, apart entirely from the abolition of capital punishment or the retention of it upon which I am giving no views myself this evening, there is a case to be made at least for the amendment of the law as it exists, even though it has been said this evening by some speakers that there have been very few cases in which the capital sentence was carried out in this country during the past few years.

We had a couple of years ago what was called the Bentley case in Britain —I am just referring to this in an abstract kind of way—where two people were engaged in a criminal conspiracy and loss of life resulted. It is the law, as Senators know, that when people conspire to carry out a criminal act, whatever that criminal act may be, and if death results, then each of those engaged in that conspiracy can be pronounced guilty of murder and can be the subject of the extreme penalty.

[200] In that case, as Senators may remember, there were two people involved, but the chief instigator at the time was under age and he was reprieved. The person who played a lesser part in the crime was executed. There was an outcry in Britain at the time against the carrying out of the sentence, but the Home Secretary apparently discovered that he had to administer the law as he found it. I suggest that there would be a reason, perhaps, for the amendment of the law relating to the administration of capital punishment.

I do not intend to speak very long on this matter because, as I say, we are not being called upon to make any decision. I hope that if the Government have given consideration to the matter before now, we shall soon get some inkling as to what their attitude is if we do not get it this evening.

Mr. Hickey: Information on James Hickey Zoom on James Hickey I can assure the Seanad that I am not influenced by what is happening or what may happen in England with regard to capital punishment. I rise to support this motion and I can assure Senators that long before to-day I discussed the merits and demerits of capital punishment. I think we in this country have had as much experience of it as any country in the world. I take my stand on the moral issue. We are told in the Scripture that: “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord.” I think we as humans have no right to take human life. I remember speaking to a man in Birmingham in 1931. He had spent two years in jail in England as a conscientious objector. We had a long discussion on the topic. I was in England again last week and I met a 23-year-old man who had refused to go up for his two years' training, because, he said, he would not be responsible for taking the life of anybody. Again, I had a very interesting discussion with him on capital punishment.

Many things have been said here this evening for and against the motion. I can assure the members that I am not influenced by anything that has been said. Senator Kissane spoke about the need for a change because the social order is changing. There is one thing on which we have to make up our minds and that is that principle does not [201] change. I am convinced that, on principle, no Government or no State should take human life. We must think of some of the murders that have taken place and of the men who stood before the murderers. These men did not believe in taking life. Senator Sheehy Skeffington gave a very good illustration. Some of us have read and knew of the fact that his father had met his death at the hands of a murderer. Many of the men who stood before the firing squads here had the moral aspect in mind when they prayed for their executioners. For these reasons, I take my stand behind the suggestion that capital punishment should be abolished.

Professor O'Brien: Information on George Augustine Thomas OBrien Zoom on George Augustine Thomas OBrien I find it very difficult to know why any Senator should vote against this motion since it is simply for an inquiry into one of the most important aspects of our criminal administration. If it were a motion calling for the abolition of capital punishment, I would find myself in difficulty. In fact, I think I should abstain because I would be afraid of succumbing to an emotional bias against capital punishment. I would find it impossible to make a decision and would probably abstain because I would not consider that the debate here this evening, excellent though the speeches have been, had sufficiently exhausted the subject to enable the Seanad to come to a definite opinion.

This is, however, is a motion for an inquiry into the question of capital punishment. It has been abolished in every European country, except this, and it is about to be abolished in Great Britain. The motion for an inquiry seems to me to be an eminently reasonable demand to make on the Government. Accordingly, I could not bring myself to vote against it, though my mind is very open. If an inquiry were set up, I feel sure the members of the inquiry would approach the subject with an equally open mind. We had a debate here recently on the question relating to the punishment of prisoners by the confiscation of their pensions. I said then, and I repeat, that this country seems to be lagging behind [202] others in humanitarianism and legal reform. There seems to be a complacency in official circles as to what is right in these matters. We have been slow to follow modern developments in these matters and that is why I think a revision of opinion on the law is long overdue.

Up to 100 years ago, anybody who stole a cow or a sheep went to the gallows in public. I have no doubt that if we had had this debate 100 years ago, the abolition of capital punishment could not have been safely advocated. It would be said then that if capital punishment were abolished, there would be wholesale thefts and burglaries; it would be said that the fear of the gallows would not be so great if executions were not carried out in public.

The fact that such public executions have been abolished and that the crimes punished by capital punishment have been lessened more and more has not brought about a marked increase in crime. In fact, records point in the other direction. As I have said, I think the motion is an eminently reasonable one. It seems to me to be an effort to bring Irish law in practice into line with that of other countries.

A large number of people are undoubtedly unhappy about this situation. Public opinion is unhappy about this question of capital punishment; large numbers of people feel that the whole subject should be gone into afresh. The reason for that unhappiness is two-fold. The reason I am unhappy in the first place, is the matter which was mentioned by Senator Stanford—the possibility of error. We all know there have been errors in recent years, certainly in England where the errors have been admitted publicly.

For serious crimes like larcenies and burglaries, innocent men have been sentenced to long terms of imprisonment. Later, the real criminals have confessed. It has been asked in these cases by newspapers: “What would happen if these people had been hanged?” Then no reparation could be made. A great deal of controversy has grown up around the Evans case. Some of the leaders of the English Bar are quite satisfied that a grave injustice [203] was done in that case. It is the fear that circumstantial evidence might sometimes lead to bad results that makes me and other people unhappy about the terrible finality of the death sentence. If a mistake is made, there can be no reparation. Therefore, I think public opinion is entitled to be perfectly satisfied that errors of this kind will be impossible, in so far as human judgment can go.

The second reason why people are unhappy has not been mentioned in this debate. It is really my principal reason for rising. It is that the law regarding insanity is generally admitted to be completely out of date. If one could be perfectly satisfied that killings were done by people with a full sense of responsibility, after full preparation and with full malice aforethought and without any flaw in their minds, no one would have such objection to the death sentence. However, everybody knows that the law regarding insanity, is really out of line with modern psychological developments. The law regarding insanity was laid down under the McNaghten Rules in 1843. These rules appear to be very crude and very rough. They date from the period before modern psychological science grew up and great difficulties arise in the courts in trying to bring the tests laid down by them into line with modern psychological developments. I suggest to the Minister that one of the things that need investigation is the whole law of insanity. The present law is entirely outmoded by modern psychological tests and it is entirely inadequate to the facts of the situation.

If people were satisfied, that in regard to convictions on circumstantial evidence, the possibility of error was reduced to the minimum, and that no person would be hanged unless he was really responsible by the modern tests of psychological analysis, a lot of the objection to capital punishment would be removed. People are not satisfied regarding those two things and the time has come to investigate this whole matter in its entirety. I do not see how any person, professing to be a liberal or a humanitarian, could vote against the motion asking for an [204] inquiry into this exceedingly important social problem.

Mr. Crowley: Information on Patrick Crowley Zoom on Patrick Crowley I must confess that I found myself approaching the subject of this motion with fear and trembling. I must also admit that I was tempted to listen to the presentation of the case, both for and against, before I felt myself qualified to speak on it. Having heard the debate and the opinions expressed on the motion itself, I must say that I am impressed by what appears to me to be the very simple issue involved in it.

The strongest case made by those who speak in favour of the retention of capital punishment seems to rest on one ground only, that is, that the retention of capital punishment is a deterrent. Surely we do not have to look far around us to see that that argument is fallacious and is not even based on fact. We do known that, despite the fact that in this country and other countries, capital punishment is retained as a deterrent, it has not stopped people from committing murder.

The second point that strikes me is that the calculating or premeditating murderer, we can assume, automatically assumes complete immunity before he sets out to commit the crime. Consequently, the existence of capital punishment is no deterrent in such a case. On the other side of the picture, a person who commits a murder in a fit of passion or blind rage quite clearly does not stop to think of the consequences of his crime. In that case also, the existence of capital punishment does not act as a deterrent.

Finally, the position that, I think, has already been reached on this whole question is that, whether we admit it or not, capital punishment is not, in fact, a deterrent to murder at all, and if it is a deterrent, it is not a sufficient deterrent.

I am much more impressed by the arguments used by the mover of the motion in which he made the case that a far better punishment would be a genuine life sentence with a prolonged period of rigorous punishment which would present to any potential murderer a far greater deterrent than the possibility of a death sentence in [205] punishment of his crime. I feel that, undoubtedly, we should approach this question with a great deal of timidity and caution. If I was faced to-night with the question of deciding whether or not we should abolish capital punishment, even as a deterrent, I think I would be forced to consider this question much more seriously and with much more than ordinary care.

I have not the slightest doubt in saying that an excellent case has already been established for a complete and an immediate examination of this whole problem and I could not find it possible to oppose the motion.

Mr. Douglas: The fact that my name is associated with this motion will make it quite clear to members of the House where I stand in the matter. There have been one or two Senators who have gone into the whole moral and theoretical aspect of the problem. I was brought up in the belief that to take life, in any circumstances whatever, was wholly wrong. I have always followed that belief. I was brought up in the belief that to take life, even in time of war, was against the teaching of Christianity. I have always approached this question of capital punishment from that point of view. I was very sorry that I was unable to be present when Senator Stanford proposed the motion, but I did hear Senator Sheehy Skeffington's speech and I must confess that I was very impressed by the moderate way in which he approached this problem.

I have known Senator Sheehy Skeffington for a very long time. We were in junior school together and, as long as I have known him, he has never changed his position on the question of capital punishment. That has certainly impressed me, because of the fact that his father had, in fact, been murdered. I think I may say that on some matters Senator Sheehy Skeffington may have changed his mind, but on this question he has remained adamant.

As I have grown older, I have appreciated, although I still believe that to take life in any circumstances is completely wrong, the position of a Government who have to deal with the [206] problem, not merely from an individual point of view but also from a particular religious point of view. They have got to face the problem from the point of view of all citizens. I can appreciate the reluctance of any Government (whether in this country, Great Britain or any of the countries of Europe) which have taken the step to abolish this punishment when, in fact, it is so seldom invoked.

When Senator Stanford asked me if I would support a motion dealing with capital punishment, I think he knew perfectly well my personal views. I did say at the time that I felt I would at the moment prefer not to put my name to a motion which simply called on the Government to abolish capital punishment. I made it also clear that I did feel that the time had come when the Government in this Republic should examine the whole problem and see whether or not we could modify the law, or, as a temporary measure, remove capital punishment from the Statute Books.

I think it is rather absurd to say that we are following in the footsteps of Great Britain. Rather would. I say that Great Britain rather belatedly followed in the footsteps of other countries and we are now endeavouring to amend the position from the point of view of those many other countries of Europe which had a far greater problem in regard to the taking of life than Britain ever had. The fact that countries in Central Europe have abolished capital punishment should enable us to examine it in that modern light. I think most members of this House have agreed that a motion of this type should be passed, even though they might not be prepared to go the whole way for the abolition of capital punishment.

I hope that we will pass this motion unanimously and that we will hear from the Minister that the Government will in due course give full examination and consideration to this grave problem and see whether we can modify the existing law or remove the death penalty for a temporary period.

Minister for Justice (Mr. Everett): Information on James Everett Zoom on James Everett I have listened with interest to the discussion on the motion and to the [207] arguments advanced on both sides of the House. Senator Kissane has challenged me now to say what is the Government's decision in the matter. I am unable to give the Government's decision until such time as they get an opportunity of considering in full the views expressed by Senators on both sides of the House. I shall certainly bring those views to the notice of the Government for their consideration. I can do that in the course of the next few weeks and I can promise Senators that the Government will give due consideration to the views which have been expressed here by each individual Senator on both sides of the House.

Professor Stanford: Information on William Bedell Stanford Zoom on William Bedell Stanford In concluding this debate, I have no intention of summing up or replying to the points made. I think the debate has been balanced and reasonable and very relevant to the subject. I think we have shown that there are reasonable grounds for serious consideration of the matter by the Government. Some of us hope that the Government will abolish capital punishment; some hope that the law will be modified; others hope that it will be decided to temper the law perhaps with even more mercy [208] than before. I am not going to try to make out a case now for abolition, or modification, or anything of the kind. I think we are well satisfied with the Minister's undertaking.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Is it the intention to take a vote on the motion?

Professor Hayes: Information on Michael Hayes Zoom on Michael Hayes I think the motion could be adopted, because it only asks for an inquiry.

Motion put and agreed to.


Last Updated: 04/09/2012 07:46:31 First Page Previous Page Page of 11 Next Page Last Page