Order of Business. - An Bille um an Aonú Leasú is Fiche ar an mBunreacht (Uimh. 2), 2001: Dara Céim. Twenty-first Amendment of the Constitution (No. 2) Bill, 2001: Second Stage.

Tairgim: "Go léifear an Bille an Dara hUair anois."

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am pleased to present to this House today the Twenty-first Amendment of the Constitution (No. 2) Bill, 2001. The enactment of this Bill will enable the Government to proceed with the referendum to abolish the two references to the death penalty in the Constitution and to prohibit its reintroduction in any circumstances by the inclusion of specific provisions to that effect.

The Criminal Justice Act, 1964, abolished the death penalty for offences other than treason, capital murder and certain military offences. The death penalty was finally abolished in our statute law under the Criminal Justice Act, 1990, but not in our Constitution. Therefore without a constitutional prohibition it could be reintroduced by statute. The Constitution still contains two references to the death penalty and these are to be found at Articles 13.6 and Article 40.4.5.

Article 13.6 provides that the right of pardon and the power to commute or remit punishment are vested in the President but such power of commutation or remission may, except in capital cases, also be conferred by law on other authorities. Article 40.4.5 is part of thehabeas corpus provisions of the Constitution and provides that where an order is made by the High Court or a judge thereof for the production of the body of a person who is under sentence of death, the High Court or such judge thereof shall further order the execution of the said sentence of death shall be deferred until the body of such person has been produced before the High Court and the lawfulness of his detention has been determined, and if, after such deferment, the detention of such person is determined to be lawful, the High Court shall appoint a day for the execution of the said sentence of death.

In addition, Article 28.3.3 is also relevant. That Article,inter alia, provides that nothing in the Constitution shall be invoked to invalidate any law enacted by the Oireachtas which is expressed to be for the purpose of securing the public safety and the preservation of the State in time of war or armed rebellion.

The Bill, therefore, is proposing the making of amendments of a technical nature to enable the referendum on this issue to be held. These technical amendments are intended to reflect the situation which pertains in Irish law since the passing of the Criminal Justice Act, 1990, and to take account of our international obligations. The Bill comprises two sections and a Schedule. Section 1 details the proposed changes to the Constitution by reference to the Schedule and section 2 is a standard citation provision. The proposed changes set out in the Schedule relate to four Articles of the Constitution, Articles 13, 15, 28 and 40. These changes are as follows.

There will be the deletion of the reference to the death penalty in Article 13.6 which deals with the commutation and remission of sentences and specifies that such powers cannot be used in capital cases except by the President. There will be the deletion of Article 40.4.5, which makes provision forhabeas corpus proceedings in respect of a person who has been sentenced to death. There will be a new subsection 15.5.2 to the effect that “the Oireachtas shall not enact any law providing for the imposition of the death penalty” which is to be inserted in Article 15.5 which deals with the powers of the national Parliament. There will be the amendment of Article 28.3.3 to exclude the new Article 15.5.2 from the override provisions of that Article so that the prohibition on the reintroduction of the death penalty will apply even in time of war or armed rebellion.

The approach taken in the Bill takes into account the views and recommendations of a number of important bodies. In proposing the removal of the words "except in capital cases" in Article 13.6, the Bill reflects the recommendation of the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution on that provision. Likewise, in proposing the prohibition of the death penalty by the inclusion of a new section, in Article 15.5, the recommendation of the Constitution Review Group is being implemented in the Bill.

The Government is of the view that mere deletion of the references to the death penalty in Articles 13.6 and 40.4.5 is not enough and that any constitutional amendment relating to the death penalty should include a constitutional ban on its reintroduction. This is reflected in the Bill by the insertion of a provision in Article 15.5 to the effect that the Oireachtas shall not enact any law providing for the imposition of the death penalty. This approach is also in line with the recommendation of the Constitution Review Group. That group further recommended that, in the event of a provision being included in the Constitution prohibiting the reintroduction of the death penalty, Article 28.3.3 should be amended so that the death penalty could not be imposed even in the circumstances contemplated by Article 28.3.3, that is, where a state of emergency is declared in accordance with that Article.

In their consideration of Article 40.4.5 the Constitution Review Group, noting that the death penalty had been abolished in 1990, pointed out that unless the death penalty were to be specifically prohibited by the Constitution and an appropriate amendment made to Article 28.3.3, then Article 40.4.5 would not be redundant and should be retained. Their reasoning was as follows. Article 28.3.3 provides that nothing in the Constitution should be invoked to invalidate any law passed by the Oireachtas which expressed to be for the purpose of securing the public safety and the preservation of the State in time of war or armed rebellion.

The Constitution Review Group pointed out that unless an appropriate amendment was made to Article 28.3.3 the override provisions of that Article which permit the declaration of a state of emergency together with legislation in pursuance of that emergency could be used by a future Government to re-impose the death penalty and it would be necessary, as a minimum check on the legality of the operation of such emergency legislation, to retain the provisions of Article 40.4.5. The Bill follows the recommendations of the review group in relation to the amendment of Article 28.3.3. The amendment comprises an insertion into that subsection to exclude the new Article 15.5.2 from the override provisions of the Article so that the prohibition on the re-introduction of the death penalty will apply even in time of war or armed rebellion. The Government fav ours this approach on the basis that since, as a matter of principle it is of the view that the death penalty is wrong in all circumstances, Article 28.3.3 should be amended accordingly.

In making the proposed changes to Articles 15.5 and 28.3.3 the retention of Article 40.4.5 as a safeguard provision would not arise. There are further provisions relating to our international obligations which are of relevance. Ireland has ratified two international instruments relating to the abolition of the death penalty. They are Protocol 6 to the European Convention on Human Rights ratified on 24 June 1994 which abolishes the death penalty but allows for a derogation in time of war or imminent threat of war and the Second Optional Protocol to the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, ratified on 18 June 1993, which also abolishes the death penalty but allowed for the possibility of a reservation in time of war, which possibility the Government in 1993, on ratification, declined to avail of.

Given our stance on the subject at international level and our ratification of the Second Optional Protocol to the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the proposals as outlined in the Bill are in line with our international commitments. Sweden has recently introduced a proposal for an additional protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights to abolish the death penalty and the Government has supported this proposal.

The terrible reality of the death penalty has not been a part of our criminal law system for some time now. Although only finally abolished by the Criminal Justice Act, 1990, the death penalty has not been used in this country since 1954. The deletion of the references in Articles 13.6 and 40.4.5 and the insertion of a prohibition in Article 15 give constitutional protection to what has already been done by statute. More importantly, however, the amendment relating to Article 28.3.3 means the override provisions of that Article enabling the re-introduction of the death penalty in time of war or armed rebellion will not be used at any stage in the future. That sends out a forceful message to the international community of Ireland's strong stance against the use of the death penalty and is one of which we as a modern democracy can be rightly proud.

I commend the Bill to the House.

I wish to share my time with Deputy McGahon.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I thank the Minister for his speech. The Twenty-First Amendment of the Constitution (No. 2) Bill brings the Constitution into line with legislation as amended in the Criminal Justice Act, 1990. It seeks to do four things: to delete reference to capital cases in Article 13.6; to delete Article 40.4.5 which makes provision forhabeas corpus proceedings in respect of a person who has been sentenced to death; to include a specific provision to the effect that no one shall be sentenced to death; and to amend Article 28.3.3 to prohibit the re-introduction of the death penalty even in times of war or armed rebellion.

These changes take into account the recommendations made by the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution in November 1998 which recommended that the re-introduction of the death penalty should be prohibited by the Constitution. The Constitution Review Group in May 1996 recommended that deleting the reference to capital cases would reflect the present state of law. In addition, the Bill reflects our stand and ratification of the Sixth Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights which abolished the death penalty except in time of war and our ratification, without reservation, of the Second Optional Protocol to the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which provides for the abolition of the death penalty even in time of war.

The death penalty is not something that clicks into the Irish psyche and most of us associate it with the dim and distant past. The last execution in Ireland took place in 1954 with the hanging of a Limerick man. The Criminal Justice Act, 1964 abolished the death penalty for all except a very limited number of serious offences: capital murder, treason and certain offences by people subject to military law under the offence Acts, such as mutiny with violence. Capital murder included the murder of a member of the Prisons Service or a member of the Garda Síochána acting in the course of their duty. It also included murder committed in the course of certain offences under the Offences Against the State Act, 1939 or in the course of furtherance of activities of an unlawful organisation or the murder of a diplomatic officer of a foreign State or the murder of a member of Government. The Criminal Justice Act, 1990 abolished the death penalty for these remaining offences. However, reference to it still remains in the Constitution. It is now hoped that we will update the Constitution in line with the legislation.

Between 1964 and 1990 several persons were convicted of capital murder. Some of the convictions were quashed on appeal and in the remaining cases the sentence was commuted by the President to imprisonment for 40 years. It will be a surprise to many people, whenever they go to the poll on this referendum, to discover that traces of the death penalty still exist. More than half the countries in the world have now abolished the death penalty in law or in practice. On average more than three countries per year have abolished the death penalty for all crimes in the past decade. Having been abolished, the death penalty is seldom re-introduced.

Since 1985 more than 40 countries have abolished the death penalty and during the same period only four abolitionist countries re-introduced the penalty. One such country, Nepal, has since abolished it again; the Philippines has resumed executions and no executions have taken place in Gambia and Papua New Guinea. It is very difficult to pinpoint the exact number of executions world-wide. In 1999 there were at least 1,813 prisoners executed in 31 countries. It is likely that figure is higher. Approximately 60% of the known executions took place in China in 1999; 98 executions took place in the USA. They are the ones with which we are most familiar from a public awareness point of view. As a recognised leader of the free world we would expect certain standards from the USA and it is difficult to reconcile its self-proclaimed image of goodness with the fact that since 1990 it is the country, according to Amnesty International, which carried out the greatest number of known executions of child offenders, numbering 13. The USA can exert such an influence on the western world.

President Bush, in particular, has been associated with the death penalty. The Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs have a role to play in raising this issue with the US President at every available opportunity. Repeated scientific studies have failed to find convincing evidence that the death penalty deters crimes more effectively than other punishments. It is important that those in favour of the death penalty take note of the following statistics. The homicide rate in Canada per 100,000 population fell from a peak of 3.09 in 1975 – the year before the abolition of the death penalty for murder – to 2.41 in 1980 and it has declined further since. In 1999, the rate was 1.76 per 100,000 population. However, the most disturbing aspect of the death penalty is that the risk of executing the innocent cannot be eliminated. It is appropriate that I refer to last night's "Prime Time" programme which showed that documentation which could have resulted in the death penalty for some of the people being prosecuted may have been tampered with. It is important that the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform investigate this matter and refer it to the committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights. The allegations made on that programme, which I have no reason to doubt as there is documentary evidence, are very serious. We cannot gloss over this matter. It is disturbing and makes one wonder how often events like this occurred. Since 1973, more than 90 United States prisoners have been released from death row after evidence emerged of their innocence of the crimes for which they were sentenced to death.

However, when supporting this amendment of the Constitution it is important that the Government signal its determination to support gardaí and prison officers against criminal and terrorist elements who have no respect for life. This is particularly apt in view of recent reported incidents in our prisons. Sometimes it can be facile for Members to articulate from their lofty perch what should be done, but it is important to remember that ordinary human beings have to carry out these measures at the coalface. Any person or group who carry out such reprehensible crimes or seek to instil terror in our law enforcers and their families should meet the full rigours of the law.

I want to know what discussions the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has had with members of the security forces or the diplomatic corps with respect to this amendment. If he had discussions, what were the views of those officers? It is imperative that the mandatory 40 year sentence stay in place and that gardaí and prison officers, who frequently put their lives on the line, are aware that there is a recognition of their role. This is particularly important in the context of an unarmed force but, whether armed or unarmed, the murder of a prison officer or a member of the Garda must be dealt with in the same manner. We must at all times protect those who serve society. The present level of serious and violent crime is intolerable and there is a duty on us to maintain law and order and to create a public confidence that crime does not pay. Regrettably, this is a confidence that has been eroded in recent years.

In supporting this Bill, I acknowledge the fine work carried out over many years by some human rights groups. I pay tribute to the Irish branch of Amnesty International whose sole motivation on this issue has been a human rights one. Fine Gael would like also to acknowledge the sacrifice made by many members of the security forces and the suffering of their families. We must at all times have the means available to protect society from the criminal and the terrorist.

It will be no surprise to the Minister that once again I state my support for the death penalty in this House and regret that it is to be removed from the Irish Statute Book. My colleague, Deputy Timmons, said that the purpose of that removal was to ensure that nobody could be sentenced to death in this country. However, that is not quite correct. Every year, up to 200 people are sentenced to death. Their lives are snuffed out by animals. What about their rights? Are we just to wring our hands and say we can do nothing to the person who took their life?

Society must have deterrents. What we see in the current upheaval of Irish society is the dismantling of deterrents. I would shed a tear for any person who had to be executed, but the deterrent must apply to all. It should apply to me as well as anyone else. We are living in an increasingly violent society and if society is to have any chance, there must be some type of deterrent.

No person has the right to take a life, go to jail for seven years, possibly not serve the full seven years, and then expect to get away. There is a total finality to death and up to 200 unfortunate people per year are done to death. That is almost one person each day. In 1949, there was one murder in Ireland. Today, it is totally out of control. There are at least 200 murders per year. Many of those cases are reduced to manslaughter but the reality is that over 200 people per year are butchered. Why? Because there is no deterrent. The deterrent should apply to me as well as to the public. I fear that the removal of these references in the Constitution could militate against a future Dáil ever reintroducing capital punishment.

Some 25 years ago the majority of states in the United States abolished capital punishment and while Deputy Timmons did not refer to this, such was the upsurge in murder that one by one almost every state in the US had no option but to reintroduce capital punishment. We have a duty to protect young boys and girls – those at tender ages. The media regularly give details of their tragic deaths, savagely violated by animals, brutalised, and then having their lives snuffed out. Old people living in remote cottages are also butchered with regularity. What about protection and rights for them? It is not enough to say that this was a terrible thing, or to say that someone will be sent to jail for seven years, and then move on. This final act in the removal of the possibility of at some future date reintroducing capital punishment, if it was deemed necessary by the Oireachtas, should not go ahead.

I know that mine is a lone voice in the wilderness but I must make a comment on the farcical alternative sentencing. Seven years in jail and murderers get out again, in some cases to reoffend. This illustrates how the liberal society has taken over. There is no value placed on life. One looks at the recent tragic war in the north of Ireland in which almost 4,000 people were killed over 30 years. Many of those who were guilty by association in the deaths of most of those people have got away – I am referring to Mr. Gerry Adams and Mr. Martin McGuinness and their ilk. These men are international war criminals yet they have been regularly entertained at Leinster House. They are entertained in Downing Street and in the White House.

This makes a mockery of democracy and is a nightmare. The appeasement of criminals who take life has reached an all time high. Is there no concern about the treatment of the killers of Garda Gerry McCabe? Will the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform let them out of jail also? Unless law and order is reinstated and unless the most heinous crime in the book, the taking of life, is reinstated as the most unacceptable crime, Irish society is in for a very difficult time.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. Deputy McGahon has very trenchantly and forthrightly expressed his views as is his right. I fundamentally disagree with him when he says that if someone takes a life, the response of the State should be to take that person's life. The Labour Party fully supports the removal from the Constitution of all references to the death penalty. We support the Bill introduced in the House today and will strongly advocate its approval by the people in the forthcoming referendum on the issue.

The death penalty has not been invoked in this jurisdiction for many years. The last person to be hanged was 25 year old Michael Manning from Limerick in 1954. The circumstances of Mr. Manning's crime, in which drink played a major role in the lead-up to the brutal, but unpremeditated, murder of Sr. Catherine Cooper, make the case to abolish the death penalty in all circumstances. Since the death of Mr. Manning, those found guilty by the courts of capital murder have served long prison sentences instead of facing the hangman's rope.

Many people are unaware that the death penalty is part of the Irish penal code and may be surprised to learn of the intention to hold a referendum on the issue. Since the passage of the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Act in 1990, the death penalty cannot be imposed by a court. However, the references to the death penalty are still found in the Constitution and Article 28.3 allows for its reintroduction in a time of war or armed rebellion. The fact that the Constitution is in need of amendment is not in doubt.

Despite the current practice, the reality is that those who framed the 1937 Constitution contemplated and provided for the death penalty for the most serious crimes. The death penalty is a cruel and inhuman punishment which has no place in a modern democracy. It is only right that all references to this evil act are removed from our most fundamental legal document, a document upon which all institutions of the State are founded.

Constitutions not only provide the fundamental law for a jurisdiction, they also reflect its philosophy, history and basic values. This is true of the 1937 Constitution in particular. Our society and our values have changed in the 64 years since that Constitution was narrowly passed in a referendum and it is only proper that our Constitution is amended to reflect these changes.

Some would propose to go further. The Progressive Democrats once argued it was time to rip up Bunreacht na hÉireann and start again. They went so far as to publish a "Constitution for a New Republic" in 1988, a document which, unfortunately, received more coverage for its failure to include a reference to God than for its proposed reform. I believe the document was a thought provoking and inventive development. That reforming zeal seems to have evaporated from the Progressive Democrats in recent years. Given the extent and scope of the report of the Constitution Review Group and the extensive deliberations of the All-Party Oireachtas Committee, which are ongoing, the idea of framing a new constitution and putting it before the people is worthy of examination. However, that is an argument for another day.

The reasons our Constitution includes references to the death penalty are clear from a historical perspective. In 1937, the memories of rebellion, the War of Independence and the Civil War were everyday realities for Irish families. For the first decade, at least, during which the Constitution of Saorstát Éireann was in force, the very foundations of the State and democracy were under threat. The pro-treaty side in the Civil War battled to establish and maintain the very basic structure of civil society. The bitterness and pain sown by that war resulted in a substantial section of the citizens of the new State being opposed to its very existence. The presence of a large number of weapons in a society which had been in a state of armed turmoil for more than five years heightened the danger to democracy.

The decision of Fianna Fáil to enter Dáil Éireann in 1927 was a critical event in the evolution of the Irish State. The result of the 1932 election and the Fianna Fáil Government which was subsequently formed, with the help of the Labour Party, was a further watershed. The statesmanship demonstrated by W.T. Cosgrave, in particular, which resulted in the relatively smooth transfer of power on that occasion is one of the most remarkable acts of selflessness in Irish political history.

By 1937, the Irish State was secure. However, the anti-treaty rump still maintained a private army and engaged in lethal, if somewhat sporadic, acts of violence during these years. That threat was one of the main reasons for the State maintaining the provision to kill persons convicted of particular crimes and the references in Bunreacht na hÉireann to the death penalty. The wording of Article 28.3 also allowed for the use of the death penalty during a "time of war or armed rebellion". While we can look back and understand the historical reasons for the death penalty, the fact is that such a practice is repugnant in a civilised society. The Bill before the House is a logical conclusion of the Criminal Justice Act of 1990, the report of the Constitution Review Group, which recommended the prohibition of the reintroduction of the death penalty, and the European Convention on Human rights to which Ireland is a signatory.

To a great extent, this Bill and the forthcoming referendum are symbolic. I strongly believe the Irish people will support the referendum. If that happens, the Government should use this new mandate to actively campaign for the abolition of the death penalty world-wide. It would be a tragedy if the Irish people were to support this referendum but the Government were to subsequently decide its job was done and move on to other business.

The most fundamental human right of all, the right to life, is being violated by states across the world. The United States of America, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran are the leading state executioners. Ireland should play a leading role in supporting organisations which campaign against the death penalty in these and other countries, organisations such as Amnesty International which has achieved so much on behalf of victims of state violence across the world.

Ireland's position on the UN Security Council must be used to campaign against the death penalty. If we believe this issue is sufficiently important to introduce legislation in this House and ask the Irish people to vote on it, we should surely have the courage to put our heads above the parapet on the international stage and voice our opposition to state murder, loud and clear.

The recent election of George Bush as President of America will be a test of our resolve and determination on this issue. I support Deputy Timmins's comments on the need to exert pressure on the US Government. As Governor of Texas, Mr. Bush demonstrated his willingness to carry out the death penalty. In spite of the overwhelming evidence collated to the effect that the death penalty in Texas and other US states is used in a racist and class-ridden manner, Mr. Bush continued to send people, primarily poor and black people, to their deaths in the months and weeks before the presidential election.

Ireland enjoys a special relationship with the US. The critical involvement of the Clinton presidency in the peace process, from the granting of a visa to Joe Cahill to the former President's visit here towards the end of last year, was of vital importance to the progress made on this island since 1994. That special relationship works both ways. We now enjoy access at the highest level to the corridors of power in Washington, in both Capitol Hill and Pennsylvania Avenue.

We should use our access, moral authority and diplomatic skills to demonstrate, in no uncertain terms, our opposition to state execution in the United States. Since 1990, more than 350 people have been executed in the US. That is an appalling toll. I vehemently disagree with the comments of the previous speaker on this issue. The majority of those executed are black and poor. Others are juveniles or people who are mentally handicapped. Many are also innocent of their crimes. In the past 20 years alone, more than 70 people have been released from death row in America after evidence of their wrongful conviction came to light.

Many people in this House and in wider Irish society campaigned for the release of the Birmingham Six. Those familiar with that case will be only too aware of the words of Lord Denning during the sentencing of these six men when he made clear his desire to impose a death penalty. This chilling incident reveals the truth behind a number of state executions, namely that innocent people are killed.

The involvement of the United States in the peace process does not require Ireland to take a vow of silence on human rights abuses. The death penalty is a human rights abuse, its widespread use in the United States, the self-proclaimed leader of the free world, is a disgrace and we should have the courage to say so. We should also have the courage to put our views to all other countries which maintain the death penalty. Will the Minister give a guarantee to the House today that, in the event of the passage of this referendum, the Taoiseach will write to the leader of each country where the death penalty is enforced, informing them of the democratic decision of the Irish people and urging them to follow our lead? I note the Minister's point on supporting a proposal from Sweden but I hope he will address this broader issue at the conclusion of Second Stage.

I welcome this Bill which is part of a raft of referenda on which the Irish people will vote. The legislation for the referenda on judicial conduct, the death penalty and the international criminal court are all under the tutelage of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. I am deeply disappointed that one other referendum, for which thousands of people have been waiting, has not seen the light of day. I refer to the promised referendum dealing with the human rights of people with disabilities. Since the striking down of the original Employment Equality Act and the Equal Status Act, it has been abundantly clear that an amendment of the Constitution to ensure the human rights of citizens comes before ownership rights of employers and owner's property is urgently needed. The Employment Equality Act and the Equal Status Act passed by the 28th Dáil have been significantly watered down to deal with the consequences of the Supreme Court judgment. The Government has promised to introduce a disability Bill but it continues to slip back on the list of proposed legislation. In all likelihood, the Bill will not be passed by the Oireachtas during the lifetime of the Government. There are two possible reasons for this, lethargy and complexity. Given the tone of this debate, I will give the Minister and his Department the benefit of the doubt and accept the complexity of the issue is holding up the legislation. That complexity could be unravelled if the Government proposed a relatively straightforward amendment to the Constitution. The Labour Party has already published a comprehensive amendment Bill which the Minister could adopt. Will he consider that proposal?

It seems that people with disabilities must still wait. It is an appalling record and I cannot let this debate pass without referring to the priorities of the Government when it comes to constitutional referenda. The electorate is informed and sophisticated and, given this raft of amendments, the Government could easily have decided on another issue of fundamental rights, the right of people with disabilities to enjoy those things which able bodied people take for granted. Unfortunately, through the lack of political will, this important constitutional change will not be decided on by the people this time round and I am sincerely disappointed at that. There was an indication earlier in the session that this might be one of the referenda put to the people, but that does not now appear as if it will be the case.

On the issue before the House, I repeat my party's support for the Bill and our commitment to campaign for its passage. I take this opportunity to compliment the Minister and his officials on the introduction of the Bill. Given two Bills dealing with constitutional referenda and a spell at Question Time this week, it will be a busy week for the Minister. I note he is also making other public announcements. I just wish another constitutional amendment was forthcoming from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. The Minister may not thank me for wanting him to be busier this week, but many people throughout the country who are concerned about equality of rights and the rights of people with disabilities will agree with me that the proposal of the Constitution Review Group and the proposals of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities should have been given priority, together with the other proposed referenda.

The Labour Party fully supports the removal of the death penalty from the Constitution, particularly the fact that the way in which it is being removed will ensure it cannot be reintroduced. That is an important point which the Minister stressed also. The Labour Party supports the proposals before us today.

I wish to share my time with Deputy Fleming.

The Bill proposes an amendment to the Constitution to delete references to and prohibit the introduction of the death penalty under any circumstances in the future. I can safely say that proposal will be well received throughout the country. I firmly believe that only God can give life and only God can take it away. It was disgraceful to read the coverage given to the death of an Irish person in yesterday's edition ofThe Star. It showed no understanding or appreciation for the trauma and difficulties being experienced by that man's family. It was an all time low in Irish journalism and I hope this type of coverage will not be repeated.

The vast majority of people throughout the country share the Government and Parliament's desire to abolish the death penalty. However, we are very conscious that it still exists. It is alarming for many people that the country which is considered to be the trend setter for the remainder of the world, the USA, still carries out the death penalty and that, unfortunately, one of its greatest advocates is the President of the United States of America. When hostilities erupt throughout the world, the rest of the civilised world often looks to the USA to bring peace, therefore, it is most unfortunate that the death penalty continues to exist there. It is a barbaric act which has no place in a modern civilised world and we should use every opportunity possible to express that view. It is often said in Ireland that one should not bite off the hand that feeds one but, as other speakers have said, we very much appreciate the wonderful role the USA played in bringing peace to this country. However, we have a duty to highlight wrong and there is no greater wrong than the imposition of the death penalty. I appeal to the Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs to use every opportunity possible to express our abhorrence of the death penalty.

In recent years, there has been a decline in public interest in referenda. Given the consensus in this regard, it is unlikely there will be much debate on the issue or that it will get many headlines in the newspapers. For that reason, it is important that we as parliamentarians make every effort to ensure the public is aware of exactly what is being proposed. We will present four different referenda to the people in a few weeks or perhaps a few months. While people have become very cynical and show a certain lack of interest in referenda, it is vital they are given the information in regard to something as serious as this. If there is a high turnout for these referenda, it will reinforce our message when we try to talk to those who use the death penalty.

Human life is sacred. I know that some families who suffer believe it should be a case of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth but that is not acceptable in the modern world. I am pleased the Minister is giving the public an opportunity to show their abhorrence for the death penalty. No matter what crimes people commit, we do not have the right to take their lives. I am convinced the public will vote overwhelmingly for what is being proposed.

I support the Twenty-First Amendment of the Constitution (No. 2) Bill, 2001, the purpose of which is to facilitate holding a referendum which will remove the death penalty from the Constitution. I am pleased to be a Member of the Oireachtas which is bringing forward this referendum and I look forward to its full support by the Irish people. I hope very few will cast their votes against it.

It is important to remember that legislation was passed in this House in 1964 to abolish the death penalty for most offences. The death penalty was finally abolished in 1990 but it was not removed from the Constitution. It is approximately 50 years since the last death penalty was implemented and an execution was carried out in Ireland. The overwhelming majority of the people have no recollection of a death penalty being enforced in this country. Given that the practice for at least two generations is not to implement the death penalty, it is correct that the Constitution should reflect the reality and the wishes of the people. I look forward to this taking place in the near future.

I would say to those who might be in favour of the death penalty that it does not work. The USA has a much higher murder rate than most other countries despite its extensive use of the death penalty. Clearly it does not act as a deterrent. While speaking of the USA, I would like to highlight the case of Roger Collins who is on death row in Jackson, Georgia. Roger's case has been highlighted for me by Billy Colbert in Portlaoise who is heading up a very active committee to secure the release of Roger Collins from death row. I support the call to have Roger Collins's death sentence commuted.

For the benefit of the House, I would like to explain what can happen when a country becomes used to the death penalty and death row. Roger Collins is approximately 42 years of age and has spent the last 24 years on death row for a crime in which he was involved when he was 18 years of age. He has spent most of his life on death row. He was not the killer but was there when the crime was committed. The killer, who was convicted by the courts and who confessed to the killing, only received a life sentence because he had the money to pay for a good attorney. Roger Collins's problem is that he is poor and black and was a victim of abuse as a child and was not fully aware of the legal proceedings. The state appointed an attorney for him who had never dealt with a capital case before and who was given the princely sum of $600 to defend Roger Collins. For people in Ireland who are aware of what legal costs can run into for a short appearance in court, $600 is a paltry sum and is an indication of the support that state gave him. It would only provide $600 to pay for legal fees to fight the case when the person who admitted to carrying out the offence had the money to pay for a good attorney, got a life sentence and did not have to go on death row.

I appeal to people in Ireland to support Roger Collins's case to have his death sentence commuted. Roger is only one of many such cases throughout the world. I would like Ireland to use its influence through the EU and its seat on the United Nations Security Council. Through the EU, we have been working to try to introduce a moratorium on death penalties throughout Europe. A declaration by the Presidency of the European Union welcomed the introduction of a moratorium on execution in the US state of Illinois. This was issued in February of last year. The Presidency of the European Union felt it was an issue on which it could appeal to the United States.

The abolition of the death penalty contributes to the enhancement of human dignity and the progressive development of human rights. It will be easy to convince the people as we know the death penalty does not work. We have seen in numerous other countries that are happy to use the death penalty that it does not reduce crime, does nothing for human dignity and, above all, it flies in the face of God because it is God who gives life and it is God who should take it away. Legislators throughout the world should not take it upon themselves to have the death penalty on their statute books. I urge other countries to follow the example set by the Irish people who will remove this provision from our Constitution.

In conjunction will almost all other speakers, I welcome this provision. I strongly disagree with the comments made by a colleague, Deputy McGahon, who is in favour of the retention of the death penalty. The Fine Gael Party is totally opposed to the death penalty or its reintroduction at any time. We believe the death penalty is and has been shown to be wrong. I remember listening to the late Seán MacBride, a former Minister for Foreign Affairs, in UCD one night. When I went into that debate I was strongly in favour of capital punishment but I listened intently to the arguments presented by Seán MacBride and I came away convinced that the carrying out of the death penalty by the state is wrong and should not be countenanced or supported at any time. We should be quite vociferous in our opposition to the death penalty.

One can look at what happened in Britain over the years, at the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four and at quite a few other such cases in which in years gone by the death penalty would have been imposed. Those people were subsequently found to be totally innocent, were released and were paid compensation. It shows that mistakes can be made. For somebody to be hanged, executed by the state, for a murder of which they are innocent, shows that we must ensure it does not happen again.

I was pleased that the Criminal Justice Act, 1964, abolished the death penalty for offences other than treason, capital murder and certain military offences. I was also pleased that the death penalty was finally abolished in our statute law under the Criminal Justice Act, 1990, but not in our Constitution. I am a member of the All-Party Committee on the Constitution that dealt with fundamental rights. The report of the review group referred to appeals relating to death sentences. The review group noted that the death penalty had been abolished as a sentence but may be imposed by the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Act, 1990. The recommendation of the review group was to prohibit the reintroduction of the death penalty. If this is not deemed desirable, Article 40.4.5. should be retained. If it is prohibited, Article 28.3.3 will require amendment so the death penalty cannot be imposed in any circumstances. I am pleased we are going to have a constitutional referendum on this matter and I will actively support this amendment of the Constitution.

I would like to state clearly and unequivocally that the murder of a member of the Garda Síochána, a prison officer or an elected Member of either House of Oireachtas should mean life imprisonment – a lengthy sentence. I am retiring at the end of this Dáil as are Deputy Briscoe and Deputy Andrews. We have served the people and in my time in the House, I have seen a colleague in Fine Gael, the late Senator Billy Fox, shot. I strongly believe elected Members of the Houses should be protected in the same way as a member of the Garda Síochána and that anyone found guilty of the murder of an elected Member of the Houses should serve a lengthy sentence. The Garda Síochána is an unarmed police force and it deserves protection from this House and the people it represents.

It is important we examine how people are tried for and convicted of murder. We have to be careful to see how we are examining cases of murder and of missing people. Every Member of the Oireachtas will have received a letter in the last few days from a man whose sister is missing. The Minister will also have received this letter in the last day or two. In his letter, this man speaks of his sister who has been missing since 3 November 1999. He states that the assistance they have received has been very poor. He also refers to the fact there is no helpline for the relatives of those who are missing. There was a helpline run on a voluntary basis. It was a great help but it lost its telephone line because of a lack of funds. The trauma of losing a relative is horrific in terms of the worry, concern and the money expended. When people who have lost relatives want a fully staffed help line and it is not possible to provide funding, there is something seriously wrong.

I also wish to refer to the cases of a number of missing persons. I raised this matter with the Minister previously. Operation Trace, which is based in Naas, is working quite well and I welcome that, but I am concerned that six ladies are missing whose bodies have never been found. I share the hope of their families that they may some day be found. Hopefully, progress is being made under Operation Trace. The six cases are Annie McCarrick, 26, who went missing in 1993 and was last seen in County Wicklow; Jo Jo Dullard, 20, who went missing in 1995; Fiona Pender, 25, from my own constituency, who went missing in 1996; Ciara Breen, 17, from Dundalk, who went missing in 1997; Fiona Sinnott, 19, from Wexford, who went missing in 1998; and Deirdre Jacob, 19, from County Kildare, who went missing in 1998. These were all young women from counties in close proximity to one another – Kildare, Wicklow, Offaly, Wexford and Louth. That makes me uncomfortable.

Four other women were also missing. Antoinette Smith, 27, went missing in 1987 and Patricia Doherty, 30, went missing in 1991. The bodies of both women were found in Kilkeel. Eva Brennan, 40, went missing in 1993. Her body was not found. The body of Marie Gilmartin, 38, was found on the Laois-Offaly border.

A former Garda detective, Gerry Carroll, recently pointed out in regard to missing persons that there may be a connection between some of those murders. One person may have been involved in the loss of these women. I am concerned and the issue needs to be further examined because it is of the utmost importance. The numbers of missing people have increased dramatically from 1,358 to 2,015 in 1998. We need to be more vigilant in helping to trace missing people because it is essential to make a greater effort to trace them. Their families are worried about them. It is obvious that some of them have been murdered and the people who committed the murders must be brought to book for them. I support the Bill.

I strongly welcome this proposal by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform for the prohibition of the death penalty under this legislation, which is to be taken with a series of other proposed constitutional amendments. Statutorily, as Deputy Enright correctly adverted to, the death penalty has been abolished but it remains part of our Constitution. There was a suggestion that perhaps in times of war or on other occasions it could be resurrected. The legislation provides finally for the death of the death penalty.

I always look with a certain awe, shock and horror at the way the death penalty is used in countries where it remains in existence. While it remains in countries such as China, it also remains in the free world in the United States. I know a little about the position in America in terms of the publicity arising from the exercise of the death penalty. The issue is more in the public domain in the US than in China. The death penalty is exercised in most states in America. Prisoners are put on death row having been convicted of a murder or murders and the horror of this is that in many instances they are held on death row for many years.

That is one of the terrible spin-offs of the application of the death penalty in the US. I strongly urge the authorities there to look into their own hearts. They will not listen to a mere mortal such as myself but there is a strong enough voice in various countries, including Ireland, to which the US authorities might listen. I reflect on the terribleness of the death penalty, more particularly in the context of its use and application in the US. One is placed in a death cell and then brought to a room to receive a lethal injection. It might take a considerable time to descend into unconsciousness and finally death after lingering in one's death cell for ten, 15 or 20 years.

I thank the Minister for bringing Ireland finally to the position where the death penalty cannot be applied in any circumstances. The legislation provides for the amendment of the Constitution to delete references to the death penalty and to prohibit the reintroduction of the death penalty under any circumstances, even in time of war. The legislation provides for the deletion of references to capital cases in Article 13.6 in reflecting the current position regarding the abolition of the death penalty. The article deals with the commutation and remission of sentences and specifies that such powers cannot be used in capital cases, except by the President.

The legislation also provides for the deletion of Article 40.4.5, which makes the provision for habeas corpus proceedings in respect of a person who has been sentenced to death. The Bill provides for the inclusion of a specific provision in Article 15.5.2 to the effect that no law shall be enacted providing for a sentence of death with regard to the prohibition of the death penalty and an amendment to Article 28.3.3, the effect of which would be that the prohibition under the new Article 15.5.2 would continue to apply even in time of war. Article 28.3.3 allows for the Constitution to be overridden for the purpose of sec uring public safety and the preservation of the State in time of war or armed rebellion.

These latter provisions reflect the stand taken internationally by Ireland in its application of the sixth protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights, which abolished the death penalty except in time of war, and its ratification, without reservation, of the second optional protocol to the United Nations International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, which provides for the abolition of the death penalty even in time of war. That is what the people are being asked to do in this amendment to the Constitution on which they are required to adjudicate in an upcoming series of referenda.

The Minister helpfully gave the background to the death penalty. He said it is almost 50 years since the death penalty was used in Ireland as the last execution took place in 1954. The Criminal Justice Act, 1964, abolished the death penalty for offences other than treason, capital murder and certain military offences. The death penalty was finally abolished in statute law under the Criminal Justice, Act, 1990, but not in constitutional law. I pay tribute to the all-party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution and the constitutional review group which considered the death penalty provisions of the constitution. The all-party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution, which reported in November 1998, recommended the deletion of the reference to capital cases in Article 13.6.

The report of the constitutional review group in May 1996 recommended the deletion of Article 40.4.5º and a provision banning the reintroduction of the death penalty, including an appropriate amendment to Article 28.3.3º. The report of the Constitution Review Group succinctly set out its views on matters relating to death sentences. I pay tribute to the chairmen of both bodies and the individuals who produced these reports which are helpful not only in discussions about the death penalty, but many other matters relating to the Constitution.

I had the honour of being appointed by Mr. Seán Lemass to the 1966 constitutional review committee, a year after my election to the Dáil. The committee discussed much of what continues to be discussed in relation to the Constitution. However, much has been achieved since that time as a direct result of the farsightedness of a great and patriotic Irishman. It is also fair to point out that I was elected to the Dáil under the leadership of the Fianna Fáil Party by the then Taoiseach, Mr. Seán Lemass. He was in office for a short period before he stood down as Taoiseach. He then became a member of the 1966-67 constitutional review committee and I had the great honour and privilege of sitting with him on that committee. It was a hugely important experience for a young man and I have great recollections of his views on this and other subjects relating to the Constitution.

I welcome the Bill and I wish it a speedy passage through the Houses of the Oireachtas. I also welcome the nature of the debate and the contributions of Deputy Andrews and others. It is clear there is agreement among all parties, with the exception of a few individuals, that the death penalty is questionable as a deterrent, but barbaric and inhuman as an instrument. In many ways, it represents the antithesis of human rights.

The passage of this legislation, which will allow for a constitutional referendum, is perhaps theoretical because nobody living in the real world would have expected the instrument of the death penalty to be used having regard to legislation passed previously and particularly the debate 11 years ago when capital punishment was abolished. The alteration of the Constitution to include a provision whereby no law may be enacted to allow for the introduction of the death penalty is welcome. However, I am not sure how close it is to reality or practicality.

I wish to make three points and the first refers to capital murder. Over the years, sanction was reserved in the legal code whereby the death penalty could be used in certain circumstances, such as capital murder. That was abolished and our police force is largely unarmed. In his reply, will the Minister comment specifically on the release or otherwise of the killers of Detective Garda Jerry McCabe? This matter appears in the newspapers frequently as the Northern peace process progresses and Sinn Féin appears to become more active in national politics in the Republic. Given recent newspaper speculation and utterances on the part of certain Sinn Féin politicians, it is appropriate that the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform clears up any ambiguity or ambivalence that might surround the future detention of the killers of Detective Garda McCabe for the duration of their sentences.

The Deputy is straying from the Bill.

I am sure the Acting Chairman agrees it is important in the context of the killing of a member of the Garda Síochána.

Acting Chairman

The instructions to the Chair are that one must speak about the constitutional amendment.

I am speaking about it.

Acting Chairman

Mentioning specific cases is straying from the Bill.

Previous speakers referred to missing women and the Chair did not intervene. I do not wish to question the Acting Chairman's ruling, but it is appropriate to mention the killing of a member of the Garda Síochána in the context of a constitutional change that will prevent a future Oireachtas, of whatever hue the people may ordain, from introducing a law that will revert to the position that existed for many years regarding a sanction for capital murder. I disagree with the Acting Chairman, but I have made my point on the issue.

My second point is equally appropriate regarding the removal of a sanction of capital murder in the case of the murder of a prison officer. As a Member of the House representing the people of Laois-Offaly, it is my right to mention the extraordinary situation that exists in Portlaoise Prison where a convicted criminal, Mr. John Gilligan, has, from the confines of his prison cell, issued threats to prison officers and their families. What sanction in law is open to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to ensure that this does not continue on the part of Mr. Gilligan or any other individual that might be convicted and held at the Minister's pleasure in my constituency? It is totally unacceptable that prison officers, who are employed as guardians of the State's places of detention, and their families should be subjected to intimidation, threats and undue pressure from Mr. John Gilligan, a convicted criminal who drew from the trial judge an extraordinary statement regarding the type of individual with whom we are dealing. It is totally unacceptable that this man, who lived a life of terror and intimidation in this city and beyond, should come to my constituency and continue in the same vein.

Regarding our positionvis-à-vis the United States of America, I find the recent reintroduction of the death penalty in many US states repugnant. I agree with what Deputy Andrews said regarding our position on that, but I disagree with him when he describes himself as a mere Member of Parliament. He has had a distinguished career and served as a very capable and honourable Minister for Foreign Affairs. I hope that, in whatever style he represents the people in Parliament, he will continue to fight this battle and make his voice heard.

I hope every Member joins him in ensuring we do everything in our power to persuade the President of the United States and various state governors to halt the inhuman and degrading treatment of many of their citizens caused by the imposition and carrying out of the death penalty. A constituency colleague, Deputy Fleming, mentioned the case of Roger Collins, and I agree with him on that. However, there are many other such people throughout the United States who are on death row and many of whom will suffer death at the hands of the state, which is a case of the state acting beyond the scope of the power vested in the state's leaders by the people. I congratulate groups like Amnesty International for their tireless work, energy and dedication over many years in highlighting instances throughout the world where the consequences of the barbaric death penalty can be seen periodically.

Now that Ireland has a seat on the prestigious UN Security Council, I hope the Minister for Foreign Affairs can convey to the American leadership, especially to President Bush, that we do not agree with the manner in which, under his juris diction, the death penalty is applied regularly and with ease throughout the United States. I hope we can convey our displeasure to the US Ambassador. In this regard, I acknowledge the contribution towards the peace process of the current incumbent, Mr. Mike Sullivan, and wish him and his wife well when they depart our shores later this spring. I hope we convey to the new incumbent, Mr. Richard Egan, that we are not happy with the manner in which his country applies the death penalty and that we do all in our power to ensure we add our voice in strong terms to the opposition to the barbaric and inhuman treatment meted out to citizens, irrespective of their position in society.

Is mian liom labhairt ar an ábhar seo mar is comhair dúinn sa Teach, má táimid ag cur ábhar ós comhair na ndaoine, díospóireacht a bheith againn ar an ábhar. Creidim go láidir san ábhar seo, sé sin, deireadh a chur leis an píonós bháis. The death penalty is a major denial of human rights. It is for that reason I wish to speak on the subject. Our Constitution defends our rights. It has rights which are enumerated and which are not. Above all, surely the right to life and, in this case, the right to life of serious offenders, is something which needs to be protected. As a modern democracy, we should promote all these fundamental rights. Life is a basic right and to remove that right, for whatever reason, and to include that in our Constitution is cruel, inhuman, degrading and does not reflect the modern thinking of the people or the way we respect life.

It is an issue of relevance not just for our Constitution but is a human rights issue throughout the world. The abolition of the death penalty is in keeping with the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights of 1948 and with many other declarations and treaties signed since then. The fact the death penalty has not been used in Ireland in almost 50 years shows our thinking and belief. The fact the last execution took place here in 1954, that the Criminal Justice Act, 1964, abolished the death penalty for offences other than treason, capital murder and certain military offences, and that the death penalty was abolished in statute law under the Criminal Justice Act shows our forward thinking and belief.

However, it is our Constitution which guides all our legislation. It protects the rights of the people. For that reason, I am pleased that we are putting it to the people not only to decide whether to remove the death penalty from the Constitution but also that a more positive recommendation is included that the sanction cannot be reintroduced again by statute. The proposals to be put to the people will ensure that the laws changed in this House can be given the imprimatur of the people by having the Constitution changed. Recommendations in this regard from the All Party Committee on the Constitution and the Constitution Review Group show that Ireland is a forward thinking country.

I am concerned about those countries which still maintain the death penalty. Using our position on the Security Council and as a forward thinking democracy, we should be able to give the lead to those other countries. There is no good reason to maintain the death penalty. It is not used in many countries and, where it is used, it is not of any benefit to society and there is no solid evidence that it deters violent crimes. There is evidence in the US to show that, where it is implemented, it is neither fair nor consistent. Evidence gathered by organisations such as Amnesty International show that various deciding factors come into play which have nothing to do with the crime and which may have more to do with the race of the perpetrator, the social and economic status of the victim and the location of the crime. These elements should not be taken into account when a person's life is at stake. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is not the type of justice system which should be used anywhere in the world, and we should give the lead in this.

The death penalty never allows for a mistake. It is irrevocable and we have evidence that the innocent have been executed.

Will the Minister of State give way to allow me make a point? I promise not to abuse the courtesy if she does.

Carlow-Kilkenny): The Deputy may proceed.

Does the Minister of State agree that, as we go through this great process of removing the death penalty from the Constitution, something with which I agree, and ensuring that we as legislators, in keeping with the European ideal, do not have the right to reimpose it, it is ironic that the Legislature in another part of the European Union has not only not abolished this sanction but also given doctors the right to practise euthanasia? It is extraordinary we should take from the people and legislators—

If I may continue with my speech, I was about to come to that point.

We are removing this sanction from the Constitution while in another part of the European Union they are giving doctors the right to impose it.

Acting Chairman

The Deputy has made his point. The Minister of State to continue.

I am sure the Deputy can make that point in his contribution. I was about to come to that same point because I was speaking in the context of the whole right to life which is well protected in Irish thinking. When a person has been executed it is irrevocable. Innocents have been executed and there is no going back from that. I am seriously concerned that, on the day we are doing this, in another European country, like us a signatory of so many treaties, they are introducing euthanasia. It is a very regressive step which flies in the face of the right to life of citizens the world over. I am also concerned that, as we are in the process of passing the Children Bill, 1999, which goes to great lengths to ensure we do not detain children or juveniles, except as a very last resort, the death penalty still exists for juvenile offenders in some countries. That flies in the face of the UN Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is very worrying that in the last ten years at least six countries have implemented the death penalty against young offenders who committed their crimes when they were under the age of 18. Those countries are Iran, Pakistan, Yemen, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and, even more worryingly, the USA. Debate has taken place here about the role of the USA and its attitude to the death penalty and it is particularly heinous in relation to young people who should be given an opportunity to reform and to look forward to the rest of their lives. The direction we are taking through the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy O'Donoghue's, Children Bill, 1999, is one that will protect children, young people, even their victims and will ensure that they are not subjected to detention, let alone the death penalty.

Already half the countries of the world have abolished the death penalty, either in law or in practice, but there are still 90 countries which retain it. Various countries have signed declarations and statutes, so there is obviously a consensus throughout most of the world that the death penalty should not be employed. There are many countries which have it on their books but do not use it. That the consensus is there is one thing, the fact that they should remove it from their books is quite another, and we are taking a lead in that direction today. Not having it in our laws will mean that no Member of this House would ever wish to introduce it and the people will welcome an opportunity to remove it from the Constitution. They will also welcome the opportunity to include a subsection to say that the Oireachtas shall not enact any law providing for the imposition of the death penalty. Therefore, not only is it a removal, it is a positive statement to the effect that we abhor the death penalty, ar son cearta na ndaonna, and I hope that we as a modern democracy, as members of the Security Council of the UN can give that lead, don domhain ar fad.

I am glad I was in the House to hear Deputy Gay Mitchell give the shortest speech of his political career.

I wish to comment, not only on the debate that we are having here today, but generally on the provisions for the referendum. Clearly a referendum to alter the Constitution is a major weapon and instrument of our democracy. It is not something that exists automatically and in western Europe there are 17 democracies, some of which have no facility for referenda. The Netherlands has never had a referendum while Ireland, compared to other countries, has had a high number. It is a fundamental part of our democracy and is the people deciding the constitutional framework within which we all must live.

There are two issues to examine when approaching any referendum proposed by any Government. One is the substance of the referendum and the other is the process, as in the mechanism or the procedure, by which it will be put to the people. It is disappointing that on neither count does this Government score. The death penalty has almost no relevance on any practical level; it has been eliminated to all intents and purposes and is not allowed in law. There is no coherent campaign or argument for its return, there is no demand for this referendum and no one could envisage there being such a demand in the foreseeable future. If one were to ask any member of the public what issue they would choose on which to have a constitutional referendum, not one of them would be likely to choose this. If the Government is serious, and we have heard a certain amount of cant about protecting lives, I suggest it might be better positioned if it looked at the argument being presented today by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul who cogently argue that the right of access to health care should be enshrined in the Constitution. People die because that right is denied them and we live in the country with the lowest life expectancy in Europe. That is a devastating fact, particularly for those families who suffer the loss of a loved one simply because that person could not access health care. Sadly, that is not being addressed by this Government, yet the constitutional right of access to health care could save lives and would do more to protect life than simply removing this particular section of the Constitution.

A point ably made by my colleague, Deputy O'Sullivan, relates to discrimination, in particular, towards those who suffer disability. The Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Mary Wallace, gave a clear indication on this issue. I refer to the proposal of the Constitution Review Group that all persons should be held equal before the law, that no person should be unfairly discriminated against, directly or indirectly, on grounds of sex, race, age, disability, sexual orientation, colour, language, culture or religion. That the Minister of State, Deputy Wallace, as it turned out, was simply flying a kite is very disappointing. People thought there was at least the possibility that a change could be made to the Constitution that would have a real impact on the quality of life. The Taoiseach made it very clear that that was not going to happen, that it was not going to be in this tranche of referenda and people who experience discrimination, and would like to have their rights enshrined in law, are to be told to wait in line.

There are many, many amendments which could be made to the Constitution and we have a series of reports, most importantly from the expert group on the Constitution, which went sedulously through it to find where the fault lines were and where the needs lay. It is a pity I have to say this now in relation to a possible future referendum – the Taoiseach is on the hook trying to devise an anti-abortion clause to put into the Constitution – by an amendment to be put to the people. The expert review group on the Constitution made it very clear that that was not the way to go. The way to go is to legislate in line with the X case. This was not an expert group with any agenda, it was not on the pro choice side, anything but. In fact, the current EU Commissioner, David Byrne, was one of the members, and no one would see him as a proponent of the pro choice stance. It was a practical, coherent presentation made by experts about our Constitution, what needs to be done and what needs to be left alone. It is most unfortunate that the Taoiseach is running with this proposal. We do not know what the proposal is but presumably we will find out at some point in the future, unless he is to change his mind.

We should have the opportunity for serious debate on a resolution about issues that relate to the quality of our daily lives but this proposal does not provide such an opportunity. We are not getting the substance that should be part of any referendum proposals, and neither does it appear that we will get the process. When this debate began there was a helter-skelter approach by the Government whereby everything would be done and dusted before the public was fully conscious of what was happening. That approach has slowed down now, however, and I am glad there has been a deceleration. Experience tells us the trend in referendum campaigns has been for a low and falling turnout, and for high and growing confusion among the public. That should alert us to the fact that we need to address the ways in which these proposals are presented to the people. I would like to hear more from the Government on how it intends to address these problems. Time and information are absolutely vital.

The third component is the kind of stimulation which in the past was generated by political parties engaging fully in debate, and Governments being able to avail of public funding in order to spearhead such debate. The McKenna judgment has set down parameters which have changed the nature of such debates. The fact that has happened, however, should not alter the necessity for ensuring that there is time, information and stimulation of debate so that people are fully informed.

I do not think we will get a debate on the death penalty because people will not stand up and argue in favour of it. It is not an issue and I would be very surprised if it became one. I have been proved wrong in the past but generally speaking people will say that this is not something that is causing conflict or which needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.

The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform was very taken with the US penal system and styles of punishment there. He came back with the idea of zero tolerance which he has not really lived up to. It is true that, generally speaking, in Ireland we abhor the American penal system and its punishments encompassing the death penalty which is anathema to us. This is particularly so as we have seen people being murdered by paramilitary groups over an extended period. Death has not been far away from us as a result of that kind of ongoing criminality over the years and so we do not believe fire should be fought with fire. We should deal with these issues in a different way. The peace process stemming from the Good Friday Agreement has shown there are other ways to deal with political violence and murder. The death penalty is not the way to deal with violent attacks and murders.

In reply, I will deal with some of the points raised by the main spokespersons. Deputy Timmins referred to the situation in other countries. The enactment of this legislation is the best example we can give to the international community at large of where we stand on the death penalty. That we will remove all reference to the death penalty from our Constitution is a signal to the world that we strongly disapprove of it. It is a very relevant statement by a civilised society which has matured enough to recognise that there are other appropriate sanctions which may be imposed when people breach the criminal law of the land.

The ratification, in 1993, of the Second Option Protocol to the UN International Convention on Civil and Political Rights has already committed us not to reintroduce the death penalty. Nonetheless, in our Constitution the death penalty is still referred to forhabeus corpus proceedings and for purposes of commutation by the President of a death sentence. The power still exists in the Constitution for the death penalty to be reintroduced in time of war or in the case of an emergency. In short, the provision which we are putting forward will ensure that all references to the death penalty will finally be deleted from the Constitution so that it will, in effect, be unconstitutional for any future Government or Legislature to bring forward legislation which would reintroduce the death penalty. If the people pass this referendum, the death penalty may only be reintroduced should the people themselves decide that it is appropriate to amend the Constitution again in that respect.

Deputy O'Sullivan referred to the question of a world-wide abolition of the death penalty. Ireland has already expressed support for a Swedish proposal to abolish the death penalty. If that proposal, which was made in the Council of Europe, is eventually carried, more than 30 European countries will no longer apply the death penalty in any circumstances. That will be a strong message to other countries to consider following the European model in this respect.

We must always be careful to ensure that information which is conveyed to the House is accurate. In this context, while I have always had the greatest respect for Deputy McGahon and find his contributions in the House very entertaining, I must say that he is exaggerating to no little extent when he speaks of 200 murder and manslaughter cases every year in Ireland. The number of recorded murders has been contained for 1998 and 1999 – the two most recent years for which we have records – at 38 per year. That compares to 43 murders in 1995 and 42 in 1996.

There has also been a steady decrease in manslaughter cases since the Government took office. In 1997 there were 15 cases of manslaughter, 13 in 1998, and nine in 1999.

I express my appreciation to all Deputies for welcoming the Bill and for their constructive comments. The removal of the references in the Constitution to the death penalty reflects the reality of the situation that has pertained in Irish law since 1990, and in practice since 1954. The inclusion of a specific provision prohibiting the reintroduction of the death penalty and the amendment to the override provisions of Article 28.3.3 will give constitutional protection to our obligations under Protocol VI to the European Convention on Human Rights, and the Second Option Protocol to the UN International Convention on Civil and Political Rights. In respect of the UN Protocol, the possibility of entering a reservation to allow for use of the death penalty in time of war was open to states only at the time of ratification. When ratifying that agreement in 1993 the Government declined to avail of that possibility and so in honouring our international obligations we are precluded from using the death penalty, even in time of war. Aside from those important international obligations, it is the Government's fundamental belief that the death penalty is, in any event, intrinsically wrong and that there should not be an exception to that principle, even in time of war. The Bill is a very public and positive manifestation of that belief.

Inasmuch as I regret that Deputy McGahon's comments were inaccurate, I also believe Deputy McManus's comments about us having the lowest life expectancy in Europe is equally inaccurate.

Cuireadh agus aontaíodh an cheist.

Question put and agreed to.