In opposing this motion that the Dáil should set up a Select Committee to examine and report on the question of the desirability of the abolition of capital punishment I gave it as my view that if capital punishment were abolished there would be a grave risk of increase of crimes of violence, and since murders are still committed in spite of the death penalty, I think that it would be imposing too much on people's credulity to try to persuade them that if hanging were abolished in present conditions there would be no more murders.
I am sure that people would not believe that and if the motion were to pass, fears and anxieties would be created in the public mind. Is there any reason why we should create these fears and anxieties in the minds of honest citizens? Equally I think that anybody who considers the effect of the setting up of this committee, were the House to accept it, will appreciate that a feeling might also be created in the minds of would-be criminals that since there was a move to abolish capital punishment they could afford to take greater risks in striking down their victims.
Deputy MacBride stated that he was influenced by his lack of absolute confidence in human judgement. If we were to pursue that to its conclusion I wonder where it would lead us? It would mean that in critical or serious issues in which we were asked to give our judgment and carry out our duty accordingly we would evade our responsibility. We are rational beings whereas, according to the Deputy, murderers are often irrational, unbalanced and not normal. They have often proved themselves, however, to be calculating and cold-blooded, and in such circumstances I can see no alternative to the death penalty as the only principle upon which we can take our stand and that the murderer should forfeit his life and that there should be no grounds to expect mercy for the supreme crime. We have a legal procedure with regard to cases where the punishment is a capital one and we have to look at history and the human experience behind these processes. I think that they rarely fail. In the long history of judicial proceedings I think that the mistakes are very few indeed. It would be strange if there were many because ample safeguards are laid down. If the law is not infallible there is even the prerogative of mercy which can be exercised by the Government in special circumstances and having regard to the considerations which they must have in mind in taking that course.
I have not time to give the full statistics, but during the past 23 years, deducting from the total the numbers who were judged insane, guilty of manslaughter and so on, 34 were condemned to death out of 176 persons tried for murder. Sixteen were executed, the other 18 having been reprieved; and there was a period between January, 1934, and June, 1937, during which I believe six persons were sentenced to death and had their sentences commuted. That shows that, in certain circumstances of peace and growing law-abidingness on the part of the people, the death penalty may possibly, as has happened in the countries mentioned by Deputy MacBride, fall into desuetude. It is very noticeable that in some of the most progressive of the countries he mentioned the last execution took place very many years before capital punishment was abolished. There was no question of trying to antedate public opinion or the ordinary evolution in this respect which had taken place in the circumstances of these countries, and I think there is some real hope for the cessation of capital punishment from allowing the death penalty to fall into disuse and from that being the case for a period than through any premature efforts to abolish it by legislation in advance of public opinion.
There is just one other point with reference to the argument put forward, an argument on which, I think, the proposer of the motion largely based his case, that is, that if capital punishment is not a deterrent, it should be abolished. This may seem to be a very humanitarian view, perhaps in line with some of the type of idealism which has been in vogue for along time past. Whether we regard it as a deterrent or not—and I certainly do—there are other reasons for capital punishment besides its effectiveness as a deterrent and there are very important moral issues involved. If we ask ourselves what is the justification for capital punishment, if we try to get down to that fundamental, we must regard punishment, whether it be capital or otherwise, from the point of view of the moral responsibility of the individual. That is how it has been regarded through the ages and that is the standpoint from which I think we must regard it.
Deputy MacBride referred to capital punishment as a doctrine of vengeance and went on to limit that to the term "retribution". So far as I know, Catholic teaching on this subject is that punishment is primarily and essentially retributive in character. A recent writer, the Rev. Dr. Hawkins, states that to take a just view of punishment, we must remember that the normal adult has a cerain ultimate responsibility for his deliberate actions and if he acts wrongly deserves his punishment. According to the late Rev. Professor Cronin in his standardThe Science of Ethics, whatever other function may belong to punishment such function depends upon and presupposes a retributive or retrospective function. “Punishment,” he states “supposes this element and would be unjust without it.” His reply to the argument that punishment may be inflicted to prevent others from wrongdoing is that he does not consider that punishment as a deterrent can stand alone and his conclusion in summing up is that he cannot agree that punishment could be inflicted unless it is mainly retrospective. This is to be found on pages 554 to 558, volume 1.
I do not think I have anything further to add, except to say, with regard to the point that the House may require information about this matter, that Deputies have all the facts. They have blue books galore, debates and discussions in several foreign countries and they have their own common sense and experience of our conditions which, as I said in my speech earlier, are the things which ought to guide us. Therefore, there is no necessity to set up a commission. Should action be necessary in this regard, the Government is obviously the body to initiate it. The Government has the necessary information at its disposal, and if anything further were needed to point to the futility of and lack of necessity for setting up this commission, it would be the statement of the proposer that he has no confidence in judges and legalists and apparently does not consider that their opinions would be worth having. What use a commission could have, therefore, beyond creating these unnecessary fears and anxieties of which I have spoken in the public mind, I cannot see.