Tag: 1937 constitution

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.

Why abolish the Seanad?

Enda Kenny has caused quite a stir with his announcement that Fine Gael would, in government, hold a referendum within one year of entering office to abolish the Seanad, the upper house of Ireland’s national parliament.

The motivation for this announcement would appear to be a desire to recapture some media momentum from the Labour party, but it makes for an odd policy issue to focus on in an important speech. There are many areas of the Constitution which various lobby groups have pointed to as needing reform (such as childrens’ rights, abortion, women, religion, blasphemy, the requirement to hold referenda for European Union treaties), but each is far more complex and controversial. It would be more useful to see Fine Gael propose a more comprehensive approach to constitutional reform which might include a series of referenda or a ‘super-referendum’. Holding a single-issue referendum on the Seanad seems wasteful in itself, given that the stated aim of the measure is to save money.

Considering the position of the Seanad in the Constitution and the wide scope for reform without constitutional amendment, it is strange that Fine Gael have taken this approach. Unfortunately, the makeup of panels and the university elector system cannot be changed, but much else can.

One quick and easy reform would be to abolish the salary paid to senators and cap expenses at around €20,000. A large swathe of the Seanad is populated by politicians who failed to get elected to the Dáil or who are building a profile for an eventual Dáil run. Most of the rest occupy it as a part-time role. If the position carried no salary the Seanad would still be filled, without difficulty. There is also an honorific element to a Seanad seat which negates the need for a salary.

Immediate cost-savings could be realised and a longer programme of Oireachtas reform could then be developed – perhaps involving the Seanad in European affairs to a greater degree. Too often sectors of Irish society object to European Union legislation at the point of implementation, rather than at the point of debate. The Lisbon Treaty provides for a greater role for national parliaments in the development of EU law and the Seanad could fulfil a useful role in Ireland’s engagement with the EU.

Finally, while much is made of the political nature of many appointments to the Seanad, we should not turn our noses up at the potential to directly appoint parliamentarians. These can represent sections of society who are too geographically or politically scattered to elect one of their own to the Dáil, or individuals who voice opinions that should be heard but would never gain a Dáil seat. The Seanad also provides the opportunity to a Government to bring external expertise to the cabinet table, as happens one a more wide scale basis in some countries (the US being the most prominent example). Up to two government ministers can be drawn from the Seanad (though a senator cannot be taoiseach, tánasite or minister for finance) and with two Seanad seats currently unfilled, this theoretically allows for the government to nominate, for example, a businessperson, economist or academic to the Seanad and then bring them into the government.

These possibilities could, of course, be incorporated into a unicameral Oireachtas, but for now Fine Gael seem content to propose the abolition of the Seanad and the reduction in the number of TDs without proposing a more nuanced vision of how the Oireachtas should function.