Why these calls for the death penalty?

For reasons unknown, the reintroduction of the death penalty in Ireland has become something of a hot topic.

First, a recently retired and highly respected High Court judge calls for its reintroduction so that certain types of murderers “pay the price”. Then, John O’Keefe (Dean of Law at the Dublin Business School) agrees, referring to uncited research which apparently demonstrates the deterrent effect of the death penalty. His contribution is highly charged, with populist statements that range from the vague:

In truly civilised countries, murder means murder.

to the gung ho:

One thing of which we can be certain is that the murderer who receives a lethal injection is now deterred for good. It’s called permanent incapacitation and it always works.

He also raises the old chestnuts of criminals getting off on a technicality and enjoying greater comforts in prison than at home, and refers dismissively to “rehabilitation aficionadoes”.

Now, county councillors from Fianna Fáil and the Green Party have chimed in, despite their lack of a role in national matters concerning criminal justice or the constitution.

Speaking at the January meeting of the Mid-West Regional Authority in Ennis, Co Clare, Cllr PJ Kelly (FF) said that the fear of punishment for crimes among criminals no longer existed.

Mr Kelly said: “I believe that there will be a demand before long for the reintroduction of the death penalty for certain offences. I would support a public debate on the issue.”

Supporting Mr Kelly’s call for a debate on the matter, Cllr Brian Meaney (Green) said: “A debate on the reintroduction of the death penalty is something that would put the focus on the issue of crime and punishment.”

There is a moral argument against the use of the death penalty which people either agree with or they don’t. But many of those calling for its reintroduction do so in apparent ignorance of or disregard for our international obligations and recent history. The attitude of the European Union to the death penalty, for example, can be gleaned from the fact that it marks an annual European day against the death penalty.

The history of the death penalty in Ireland was neatly summarised by the Irish Times when reporting on Mr. Justice Richard Johnson’s comments:

The last person executed in Ireland was in 1954, when Michael Manning was hanged, with the sentence being carried out by English official hangman Albert Pierrepoint. No further executions were carried out and it was abolished in law in 1990.

The abolition of capital punishment is also a condition of EU membership and exists in a protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights, to which Ireland is a signatory.

The 21st amendment inserted [in 2001] a clause preventing the Oireachtas from reintroducing the death penalty without a further referendum. It was passed in a referendum held the same day as the first Nice referendum by 62 per cent of those who voted, with 38 per cent voting against the ban.

In summary:

  1. Executions by death penalty were possible in Ireland until 2001.
  2. The last execution carried out was in 1954.
  3. A public debate and national referendum on the death penalty was carried out within the last decade and resulted in an overwhelming majority of the Irish electorate agreeing to its abolition.
  4. Reintroducing the death penalty would require Ireland to leave both the European Union and the Council of Europe.
  5. Reintroduction of the death penalty would, instead, join us with a colourful club of nations.

There appears no serious reason for this debate to be held at the present time and, Mr. Justice Johnson aside, can only be explained by “law and order” politics.

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5 thoughts on “Why these calls for the death penalty?

  1. Over Christmas, I came across this affecting passage in Michael Mansfield’s memoirs. He quotes H W Critchwell, a hangman for 8 years following the execution of Ruth Ellis in 1955.

    “There were at least 10 people waiting to witness and carry out the execution of Ruth Ellis. There was the Governor, the Padre, the Sheriff, the Hangman, the Death Watch etc. All would have been greatly relieved had a last reprieve been granted. No such miracle happened as Ruth Ellis ‘hit the rope’ These ten people, looking down the pit at the ghastly spectacle suspended from the rope received a severe shock to their systems. It is the living that suffered by this uncivilised practice. I write this in good faith. I have entered that pit and shamed myself many times. I am thoroughly ashamed. No medicine can help me; I still suffer”

    I can’t really discuss John [O’Keefe] without becoming very rude indeed. Suffice it to say he was property editor of the Sindo.

    It’s no co-incidence I’m sure that the voices now calling (impotently) for the re-introduction of the death penalty are the same ones who cheer-led the reckless and anti-social policies of the McCreevy/Harney years and who have seen their media capital diminish as a result.

  2. To me, the simplest argument against the death penalty can be seen in a “thought experiment” along the following lines:

    Do I believe that civilized societies should engage in physical torture of convicted criminals to any extent, say in cases of particularly odious crimes? [No I don’t]

    Which is the more extreme sanction: (a) very painful physical punishment or (b) execution? [Has to be (b)]

    So do you think a civilised society should be prepared to inflict on convicted criminals something which in impact is more profound than torture or very painful physical punishment? [Er, no]

    http://puckstownlane.wordpress.com/2009/11/23/lets-just-forget-the-death-penalty/

  3. What scares me more than the re-introduction of the death penalty is the re-introduction of the death penalty into a faulty legal system. Until the legal system was brought to a level where we could assure with 99.9% accuracy that everyone convicted of a crime was indeed guilty I think we have more urgent issues to address than the re-introduction of the death penalty.

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