For the information of the House, by agreement, the Second Stage debate on this Bill is being treated in the same manner as a non-government motion. The same procedural arrangements will apply in relation to the rota of speakers and time allocations, that is, half an hour for the opening speakers and 15 minutes per Senator.
Suicide Bill, 1991: Second Stage.
I would like to welcome the Minister for Justice, Deputy Burke, to the House and thank him for taking the Bill.
The Bill before the House, the Suicide Bill, 1991, sets out to bring the provisions of criminal law in this area into conformity with the needs and outlook of the present day. Its purpose is simple. It provides that it shall no longer be a criminal act to commit suicide, or to attempt to commit suicide.
The successful suicide, of course, puts him or herself beyond the reach of the law. A law that says that such a person could be charged with a crime would be regarded as silly if it was not so tragic. It is a bad law and on that grounds alone should be repealed. Because suicide is a crime it follows that an attempt to commit suicide is also a crime, punishable by criminal law. The basis of the Bill presented is that in the humane outlook of today it is recognised that those who attempt suicide are in need of compassion and assistance and not the implementation of criminal law.
It is ridiculous to suggest, as does the present law, that people who attempt to commit suicide are people with criminal tendencies in the ordinary sense. They are actuated by a variety of motives — mental illness, despair, depression, feelings of acute rejection and sometimes merely intense loneliness.
Suicide is as old as the human race itself. In ancient Greece the bodies of suicide victims were buried outside the city walls, the right hand severed and buried separately. Ancient Roman citizens could get permission from the Senate to take their own lives but slaves and criminals were refused on economic grounds. The traditional Christian approach was very strict. From St. Augustine onwards condemnation of suicide strengthened and by the start of the eighth century, suicide was deemed to be a grave mortal sin.
Christian theology on suicide was quickly incorporated into civil legislation and for 1,000 years the families of suicide victims were ostracised and persecuted. This severe approach did not wane until the late 17th century when many of the legal penalties fell away by default. Desecration of the corpse, denial of burial in consecrated grounds, forfeiture of goods to the State were being sidestepped by the judiciary who devised an approach of bringing in verdicts of suicide, "whilst the balance of the mind was disturbed". Hanging for attempted suicide took place in London up to 1860. There are people alive in Ireland who remember victims being denied burial in consecrated grounds.
Suicide was decriminalised in France in 1898 and in the UK in 1960. Ireland is one of the last Christian countries to treat suicide as a crime. It is well past time that the State changed this cruel and uncivilised approach to what is a social disease and not a criminal act. It is criminal to regard it as such.
There is extreme anguish, anger, disbelief and spiritual confusion among the family and friends of a suicide victim. Bereavement counselling of a high professional standard is required. The presence of the stigma of criminality adds to the stress of the bereaved. This Bill removes this stigma and brings Irish law into conformity with the views of the Irish people. It begins to recognise the fact that suicide must be regarded as a social disease. The fact that suicide and attempted suicide still remain a crime in Ireland is an indication of our failure to understand or to recognise the outcome of research into the area and reflects a tendency by Irish society to view suicide as a scandal rather than a tragedy.
It is time that Irish society re-evaluated its head in the sand approach and opened up to understand the reasons and growing pressures on people which was caused the suicide rate to increase almost six times since 1970. Society must accelerate its change in attitude and recognise suicide as a public health problem.
Understanding, compassion and professional counselling must be the response to the families of victims. In this area I wish to pay tribute to the work of the Samaritans, the Cork based Friends of the Suicide Bereaved and other such organisations who do excellent work in counselling and are available at the end of a phone to potential suicide victims.
In the 1960s officially recorded suicides averaged 60 per annum; this is how in excess of 300 per annum. In the sixties Ireland had one of the lowest suicide rates in the world. As in other countries, there was a level of under-recording but this cannot explain the low level of suicides as Irish emigrants to other countries retained this very low rate of suicide, although somewhat higher than the Irish living at home. The rate in Ireland at that time was, therefore, genuinely low.
The increase in suicide incidents cannot be attributed to a change in recording practices. If this was the case there would be a consequential fall in the numbers of accidental drowning, accidental poisoning and cases of open verdicts. This is not the case. The overall rise since the 1960s among men has been about 400 per cent and among women 200 per cent.
Notwithstanding the low level of suicides in Ireland in the past, it has long been accepted that there has been an under-recording of suicide incidents. It is accepted that the true figures are 2.5 to three times the official rate.
In a study in County Limerick in 1989, Dr. Peter Kirwan of the Mid-Western Health Board found that the true suicide rate was 18.04 per 100,000 population — the official figure for the period was 7.1 per 100,000 — two and a half times the official rate. Figures reported from Galway for the year 1978 give a rate of 13.1 per 100,000 is contrast to the official rate for the same year of 4.6 per 100,000 — again three times the official rate. These studies add further weight to the view that the official rates for suicide greatly underestimate the true position which, on the basis of these studies, is in the region of 1,000 deaths per year. Compiling true figures is hampered by the fact that the coroner is precluded from returning a verdict of suicide. This makes the collection of accurate figures very difficult.
This legal impediment was further confirmed in the 1989 judgment of Justice Johnson in which he found that the coroner is precluded from inquiring into the mental capacity of the deceased "even in order to produce an innocent explanation for the actions of a self killer". This has significant public health implications with regard to our understanding of suicide and the planning of appropriate services to deal with its consequences.
Our statistics do not derive directly from coroners' reports. Since 1967 confidential police reports are supplied to the Central Statistics Office on deaths suspected of being unnatural. These reports are influenced by the individual garda's opinion as to whether a case is suicide or not. This is unsatisfactory. In Switzerland two certificates are issued on death. The attending doctor fills two certificates, one to the family recording the cause of death, the other to the General Statistics Office which is confidential.
I wish to refer to the system of the coroner's court hearings. Attendance at the inquest is one of the hardest parts of the suicide bereavement. The trauma experienced in public by members of the family is extreme. The bereaved must wait around in court, often listening to many sad, tragic cases. This system must be modernised. Surely waiting rooms could be provided where relatives could remain until their case is heard. Everything should be done to ensure that the dignity of the bereaved is respected.
The major increase in suicide rates has been in the early and middle age with a fall off in the fifth decade. This is in contrast to the usual international pattern where suicide rates increase in each decade to the seventh decade. This would suggest that late middle aged and elderly people are secure in value systems which protect them emotionally from the secular changes in Irish society. One may deduce from this that a person who is depressed or under extreme pressure is more likely now to consider suicide than such a person would do 20 years ago.
Kelleher and Daly, in their study of suicide in Cork between 1980 and 1985, looked at the methods used to terminate life. The majority of men, 103 out of a total of 147 either drowned or hanged themselves, only 15 or approximately 10 per cent taking overdoses of medication. Hanging was more common in the rural areas and drowning in the urban areas. Hanging was uncommon among women whereas death by drowning occurred in over half the sample. Thirty per cent of women died by taking drug overdoses.
Among the factors which, in other countries, have been found to correlate highly with the suicide rate, have been the crime rate, level of alcoholism, the illegitimacy rate and the divorce rate. These can be taken as representing the level of integration or cohesiveness within society. Let us examine these rates in the Irish context.
The Irish illegitimacy rates show an increase in each succeeding year since 1970 with a rate then of 5.7 per 1,000 unmarried females aged 15-49 and in 1983 of 12.7 per 1,000. The number of indictable crimes between 1975 and 1985 doubled. The increase in alcoholism is measured by admissions to hospital for alcholism between 1971 and 1983 and the increase in per capita consumption of alcohol. These show an increase similar to the suicide rate. Between 1971 and 1984 the Irish marriage rate fell from 7.4 per 1,000 population to 5.8 per 1,000.
These four measures — the illegitimacy rate, the crime rate, the alcoholism level and the fall in marriage rate — confirm international findings in an Irish context. This does not offer a causative explanation but suggests that the same forces that lead to these changes are also influencing the rise in suicide.
Unemployment has a causative effect on the increase in suicide rates. Unemployment has a profound effect on a person, especially on the young and on those in early middle age. Irish society awards status and prestige according to a person's position and contribution at work. Unemployment is associated with loss of face and of prestige. The unemployed are six times more likely to be suffering from a psychiatric disorder than those in employment. Studies show that there is significantly more unemployment, job instability and occupational problems among suicide victims compared to those who did not commit suicide. Of the men who took their lives in the Kelleher-Daly Cork study, some two-thirds were out of work at the time of their deaths.
Financial poverty is not related to suicide rates; rather it is affected by the poverty of relationships and the absence of social opportunities for many. Employment supplies a ready made set of relationships.
The influence of traditional religious values has waned, particularly among the young. The growing secularisation of society has changed value systems. Social controls are less strict and people feel more alone and more lost. There is no longer a pre-arranged set of relationships with certainty within these relationships as was the case in past generations.
Part I of the Bill establishes that suicide ceases to be a crime. Part II of the Bill creates an offence of complicity in another's suicide. At present because it is an offence to commit suicide, complicity in another's suicide is automatically an offence. By decriminalising the act of suicide, aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring the suicide of another is legalised. Part II of the Bill makes complicity in another's suicide liable on conviction for a term of imprisonment not exceeding ten years.
Nothing must undermine the sanctity of human life or the general view of society that suicide, even though it will not be illegal, is regarded as a dreadful offence against nature. The sanctity of life is the rock on which our society is built. We must ensure that there is no movement towards putting a cost on preserving life.
In a recent article, Kelleher, Daly and Kelleher — who are regarded as the foremost researchers in Ireland into the area of suicide — state in relation to euthanasia:
For the caring professions, the dilemma is even more starkly cut. How can doctors, nurses or social workers reduce suicide and rehabilitate self poisoners and those who harm themselves if beneath the surface they countenance these behaviours. It is not far-fetched to envisage a time in the western world when the cost of maintaining and preserving life will be seen as too great particularly when the individual is no longer productive even though he may have been productive when age and health was on his side.... If doctors enter into the business of assisting suicide then those who see the treatment of the chronically disabled as being an unproductive loss of society's resources may also find means to reward surreptitiously those professionals who put a medical stamp of approval on the dispatch of the disagreeable.
It cannot be too clearly emphasised that nothing must undermine the sanctity of human life or the general view that suicide is a dreadful offence against nature.
It must be identified as unjust that those who are successful in suicide can bring about serious consequences for their heirs because they have been guilty of the offence. They can forfeit rights under a trust and there are other side issues under the civil law as a consequence of suicide.
The global increase in what is seen as attempted suicide or para-suicide — nonfatal deliberate self-poisoning by prescribed drugs — has been phenomenal. Deliberate self-poisoning is the second most common cause of admission to British general hospitals.
Research has shown that para-suicides are different from attempted suicides. They are younger, more often women, and do not intend to commit suicide. These occur during stress periods and are facilitated by alcohol. The motivation seems to be a cry for help which often goes unanswered by a society confused by such behaviour. Most para-suicides never come to the notice of the medical authorities.
What is the result of current research into the area of suicide? Recently it has been found that the brains of suicide victims have an unusually low level of an important chemical called serotonin. The lack of this chemical is believed to cause severe depressive illness. There is an expectation in medical circles that in the future would-be suicides will be identified in advance and effectively treated.
The Bill before us asks Seanad Éireann to take the first step to decriminalise suicide. The House has a unique opportunity to set a headline in law reform in an area crying out for such reform. Professor Tom Fahy, Professor of Psychiatry, University College Galway, has stated in relation to decriminalising suicide.
To fail to do this, now that the cat is out of the bag, will be to confirm that pagan fears of the suicide's ghost still linger in the minds of the Irish people. Suicide is nothing if it is not a tragedy. It is not a scandal. It is scandalous to regard it so. We should not of course encourage it but it must be decriminalised. Until this is done, we cannot overcome the stigma conferred on families. There is no evidence that decriminalisation stimulates more suicide. On the contrary, it has long been known to psychiatrists that it is a relief to the suicidal to know they are not alone (and that extreme despair is at most a transitory emotion). And is there not something unacceptable about an archaic law which serves no purpose and which is merely a relic of an age when the State used weapons of taboo and magic to control not only the lives but also the deaths of ordinary people.
The decriminalising of suicide is the prerequisite of a more enlightened understanding of the problem. More resources must be made available for research. Resources must be also made available for counselling the bereaved. Nowadays seven out of ten people will be affected by the suicide of a friend or relation.
In asking the House to support the Bill we are seeking to remove the aura of criminality from suicide. The churches have begun this process by allowing the bodies of victims to be buried in consecrated ground. In asking for support for the Bill we are asking for understanding of the anguish of the bereaved who see their loved ones in law branded as criminals. Let us remove this outdated approach to the problem. Sympathy and understanding must be the humane response to the bereaved. We are asking the House to recognise that those who attempt to commit suicide are in need of compassion, understanding, medical treatment and perhaps spiritual advice.
In asking the House to support the Bill we are seeking to put the debate on this social disease on a new plane. We recommend research into the issue and the development of anti-suicide programmes, greater understanding of the issue and a greater awareness of information on the help available to potential suicide victims. It is time the State came into the 20th century and ended this cruel and uncivilised law.
I am happy to be present in this House this evening to speak on this important matter, and I wish to thank Senators for giving me the opportunity of putting forward the Government's position in relation to it.
The death of a person under what I might term ordinary circumstances is a very traumatic event for family and friends but when the death occurs as a result of suicide, the situation becomes even more tragic and difficult to come to terms with.
People immediately begin to search for a reason and begin to wonder if there were any warning signs that should have picked up. The question on everyone's mind is "Could I have prevented this?" Some may even take partial blame by entertaining doubts about their lack of care and attention. People who were particularly close to the person in addition to the sense of loss may have very strong feelings of rejection. Feelings of guilt and shame abound.
As time goes on it becomes accepted that there is no point in looking for a cause. The reasons a person takes their own life are complex and varied. There can be an underlying medical or psychiatric cause but I do not believe that research has produced conclusive results and simplistic explanations are not accurate. It seems to be part and parcel of the human condition.
The psycho-analytical theories of suicide prove perhaps only what is already obvious, that the processes which lead a man to take his own life are at least as complex and difficult as those by which he continues to live and I use "man" in the sense of man/woman.
The tragedy of the death in the case of a suicide is compounded shortly afterwards by the formality of a police investigation and the necessary inquest. At that stage the harsh realities of the criminal law make their appearance and the message is hammered home that suicide above everything else is a serious crime. All this comes at a time when the relatives have to deal with the attitudes of society to the suicide. As a society we have not yet learned how to deal with suicide. There are no cultural guidelines. It has been said that there is a stigma of silence. People may be shunned and cut off from normal social contact because of it.
To what extent the criminalisation of suicide has a part to play in that process, I do not not know, but it is clear to me that if the crime is abolished, it will represent a start in the social education process to enable us to come to terms with the problem in a more humane way.
Under our criminal law today, suicide is a felony, an attempt at suicide is a misdemeanour and is punishable with imprisonment. A person who persuades another to commit suicide or to enter into a suicide pact or, who aids another in committing suicide, is guilty of murder.
Prosecution for attempted suicide have not been taken in recent years. The last such prosecution was in 1967. The view of the prosecuting authorities — which is one shared by me — is the people who attempt suicide are in need of sympathy and treatment, not punishment. In the four and a half year period from the beginning of 1987 to the end of this year the number of suicides recorded is provisionally estimated to be 1,253. I must say I am inclined to share the view of Senator Neville that the official figure is understated relative to the actual figure.
Why has society decided that suicide is a crime? I suppose the origins of this go back to early times. Religious approaches to suicide were to condemn it absolutely. This, in turn, led to the common law regarding it as self-murder. A number of consequences, which happily are now obsolete, flowed from this, for instance, the law provided for the forfeiture of goods and chattels of the person who committed suicide and there was a denial of a Christian burial, as was referred to by Senator Neville. The confiscation of goods of suicides was abolished by the general abolition of forfeiture of goods for felony by the Forfeiture Act of 1870. The Internments Act, 1882, removed all penalties, except the purely ecclesiastical one.
With the development of a more enlightened attitude to mental instability and illness, such as schizophrenia, attitudes have changed. For example, how could a person be guilty of self-murder when, almost by definition, they would have to be mentally unstable to proceed with this suicide in the first place? I know that raises another problem because it is recognised that a person in full possession of all his or her mental faculties can quite logically and methodically plan to take their own life in particular circumstances and for particular reasons.
I think that today we all would agree that it is wholly inappropriate for society to treat suicide as a crime under the law. There are very sound reasons for this and for the abolition of the felony of suicide. Obviously, the suicide is beyond the reach of punishment and second, the legal sanction is not an effective deterrent.
The only effect of criminalisation is to compound the distress and pain of the bereaved relatives and friends. That is totally undesirable and wrong and it is my intention and that of the Government to remedy the situation as quickly as possible. Indeed, there are proposals going back to 1967, and shortly before that, to abolish the offence, but unfortunately, they came to nothing.
While the Government fully agree with the principle of Senator Neville's Private Members' Bill — I share his motives and intentions — I have my own proposals in the context of a criminal law Bill, which as well as providing for the abolition of the offence of suicide and making necessary ancillary changes, will also abolish the distinction between felonies and misdemeanours generally in the criminal law.
It is complex legislation that is nearing completion. I hope to publish it before Christmas. In the context I have outlined — that I fully accept the principles outlined in the Senator's Bill, that I will be in a position to publish this Bill very shortly, that it will have been drafted with the full benefit of the Attorney General's Office and the parliamentary draftsman, and that it will be more comprehensive in its approach taking into account other items, such as the distinction between felonies and misdemeanours — I ask the Senator to withdraw the Bill rather than divide the House on it. Otherwise, I would have to say that this side of the House will oppose the Bill in its present form. I would be reluctant to see the House divide on such an issue because it is an issue on which I think all Members would share the views expressed by Senator Neville.
I hope that in my contribution I have expressed my abhorrence of this throwback to other days, the criminalisation of suicide. I know Senator Neville and his party will welcome the Government Bill in this area when it is published. It would be my wish that the House would not divide on this issue. It would be preferable if the Seanad were to await the Government Bill which is more comprehensive than the legislation we have before us, excellent as it is; I take nothing from it. I fully share the principles behind it as I have already said.
I second this Bill on the decriminalisation of suicide and the criminal liability for complicity in another's suicide. I would like to compliment Senator Neville for taking the initiative in bringing this Bill before the House. I know this is legislation he has thought about for quite some time and that he was very involved in this process and in drawing up the legislation.
It is ludicrous that anybody would be charged for attempting suicide. As Senator Neville said, the last prosecution was in 1967, so it is obvious the legislation is not being enforced. Is there a need to have that legislation on the Statute Book? If it were to be enforced, the legislation would be inhuman.
The United Kingdom was one of the last countries to decriminalise suicide in 1961. A typical picture of that time was PC Brown sitting at the bedside of the person who had attempted suicide, with his notebook in his hand, leading to the charging, prosecution and eventual imprisonment of the individual. That was quite common in Britain up to 1961.
Going back much further in history, let us look at the Romans and how they dealt with suicide. They considered it an offence against the state and they confiscated the property of the individual. It is interesting that while doing that, the Romans accepted the taking of life in battle. It appears to have been accepted that it was preferable to die by one's own hand in battle rather than to be taken by the enemy. I find it hard to imagine how they were able to cope with conflicting attitudes to the importance of life.
Senator Neville referred to a general study of psychiatric morbidity in County Limerick made by Dr. Peter Kirwan, acting chief psychiatrist in the Mid-Western Health Board area. He did this study in a newly created, community-based, rural psychiatric service. The data was collected from the relevant coroners, for the year, January to December 1989. During that time there were a total of 11 suicides in a population of 60,735, giving a suicide rate of 18.04 per 100,000. The official figure for the same period was 252 deaths due to suicide, that is, 7.1 per 100,000. Those figures were taken from the population figures for electoral areas in the last census. The question of the validity of Irish suicide rates has been the subject of debate for the past 20 years. Official rates have always been low in relation to other EC countries, although it has been recognised that suicides are under-reported and that official rates differ considerably from the actual rate.
The figures for Galway for 1978 gave a rate of 13.1 per 100,000 for the county as a whole in contrast to the official rate for the same year of 4.6 per 100,000. An issue, too, is whether there has been a rise in suicide over the past three decades. Another survey undertaken in County Kildare by Dr. Dermot Walsh called "The Recent Increase in Reported Suicide in Ireland" reports a steady rise in deaths returned as suicide by the coroner. The figure of 71 in 1968 rose to 176 in 1976. Also, an analysis of the vital statistics from 1970 to 1983 show an increase from 1.75 per 100,000 to 7.87 per 100,000. Again, the study, referred to also by Senator Neville, by Kelleher and Daly, "Suicide in Cork and Ireland", written in 1990, reported a three-fold increase in suicide in Cork city and county for the period 1980-87. Obviously, the general feeling among many clinicians is that the rate is rising and is considerably in excess of the official figures. The Minister, Deputy Burke, referred to that and has accepted that fact.
Returning to the County Limerick study — it was an intensive study, clinically and scientifically carried out — the coroner responsible was asked to forward the relevant data to Dr. Kirwan for all cases for the year 1989 in which a verdict of suicide would have been returned if this has been open to them. General practitioners were also involved. They provided data on the patients they felt had died as a result of suicide. There was also a report from community psychiatric nurses in the area investigating, independently, all anecdotal reports. The Minister says he does not believe that research has produced conclusive results and simplistic explanations are not accurate. The reason I am quoting in such detail from Dr. Kirwan's study is that there has been such detailed cross-checking between him and the community, the coroner, and the GPs, that I have no reason — and others in the field of clinical psychology have no reason — to doubt the accuracy of his figures. The coroner's data would include a copy of the Garda report, copies of statements of witnesses, a copy of the pathologist's report and a copy of the coroner's verdict. There are cross references between the GP surveys and the community psychiatric nurse's investigations. That speaks for itself. It is very thorough and detailed.
The statistics are interesting — between the ages 25-65, average age 45.7, there were ten males, one female; and they gave the details of the suicides — how they were committed; two by carbon monoxide poisoning, which is car exhaust fumes; five cases of hanging; two cases of gramoxone poisoning; one electrocution and one drowning. I know this is gory but we have to face facts. Senator Neville said that women tend to take drugs rather than the more violent way, but it is very important to see that this happened in a rural area in 1989. It must be realised that these figures are two and a half times higher than the official figure. Therefore, the study adds weight to the view that the official suicide figure greatly underestimates the true picture. It is unlikely that this rural population is unique, in case people may dismiss this report and say the result is peculiar to that area. Obviously further study into the social economic and demographic profiles would be necessary. The official rates for Limerick city in 1985-86 were 14.6 per 100,000; the mean rate for Limerick county, excluding the city borough, was 12 per 100,000. There may not seem a significant difference between them but, taking underreporting into consideration, the real figure may be 27 per 100,000 which would be well above the official figure of 14 per 100,000 for the county as a whole. The typical picture that emerges from rural areas always points to the elderly man in his sixties living alone, perhaps suffering from some element of psychiatric disturbance or alcoholism, a man disconnected from society but this is no longer the picture. The real picture from the County Limerick survey showed married men, not on the lowest rung of the ladder either socially or economically, with no history of psychiatric illness. These studies are essential to get rid of the myths which may possibly have been prevalent in the past but certainly are not today.
What are the recommendations? First, I would implore the Minister to set up a small task force to carry out a detailed national survey and establish figures. I would also hope that the task force would isolate the pockets with high suicidal rates and look at areas which are different. They should isolate the factors of causation and initiate a pilot preventative programme.
Senator Neville referred to the Coroners Act which precludes him from returning a verdict of suicide and the fact that this makes the collection of accurate figures very difficult, because he may record death by misadventure, death through shock or gunshot wound, etc. We have heard of the High Court action in which a surviving spouse took and won a case against the coroner who declared a specific suicidal death.
I would ask the Minister if Garda sergeants or superintendents fill up form 104 which has the question: is this death due to suicide? There are many other questions but that is the specific one with which I am concerned. Are gardaí given training in Templemore to deal with this specific area? Is the Garda sergeant the best person to make this decision or should there be clinical involvement at that stage? Are there criteria laid down in the Garda training programme in relation to suicide? Like other countries, perhaps there should be a scientific way to fill up that form and deal with the whole question of suicide at that point. I would recommend a new community-based service, particularly where there are new community psychiatric services. This was the reason Dr. Kirwan initiated his survey.
There should be particular emphasis on help for the bereaved. I would ask the Minister to set up formal support structures to deal with the very complex area of guilt and anger, particularly for the wife — since apparently 90 per cent of suicides are male — and also for the whole family. I know the community, parish, friends and extended family are very supportive but, at that traumatic stage, intense specialist help is needed. Psychiatrists say this has to be handled very sensitively. It is very difficult to sit down and write a probing letter to the spouse of the bereaved. A support structure is essential from the emotional and the financial viewpoints where rights under a trust may be forfeited. I am not sure of the insurance aspect relating to suicide. One never knows the anguish suffered by the wile and children of a suicide victim and I ask that this formal support structure be set up. Another interesting factor seems to emerge which needs further examination in detail. I refer to the domino or ripple effect of a suicide in an area where other suicides emerge later.
Everything that has been stated both by Senator Neville and myself this evening has shown the need for research, and for a task force to be set up immediatley the Bill is introduced. I ask the Minister to take into consideration the need for that care and professional support, and I ask for financial resources for the health boards to ensure that psychiatrists who want to carry out a very detailed analysis of problems in urban and rural Ireland have the money to do so. In other words, we must not have a Bill we cannot implement.
Research has been undertaken by pioneers in the field because of their involvement through their commitment to psychiatric services in their areas and in day hospitals in rural and urban areas. This must go beyond the initiative of psychiatrists. It has to be State supported to ensure that we are not to be renowned for suicidal tendencies initiating a feeling of hopelessness among the population who really are crying out for something to be done.
Like the Minister, I congratulate Senator Neville on his interest and study in this area. He has been totally committed to this issue and for that I congratulate him. As the Minister said, it is sad enough to have a death from natural cases but death from suicide is very different; grief is intense and friends and family look for reasons. Were there any warning signs? Could it have been stopped? All these questions are in vain at that stage, because the reasons people take their lives are so complex and so varied one cannot figure them out. It is not just the family and friends who suffer but also communities and schools.
I know it is perhaps incorrect to refer to a specific case but there is one that comes to my mind that was widely published in the local paper. A young leaving certificate student, for no apparent reason, took his own life two days before the examination. He was a popular, well loved, student. He was, indeed, an honours student and an outstanding foot-baller who almost certainly would have had a trial with a Scottish team or an English team very soon. He was buried on the morning of the English examination paper and the school will say that the results in the English examination for that year were the worst in the history of the school for the obvious reason. His football coach, to this day, is as confused and stunned and is a very sad man. Perhaps we should not cite individual cases but it was widely publicised and referred to and it a very sad case.
We all know of cases of suicide and we cannot understand what triggered them. In my own town on the River Shannon there have been five, six or perhaps more deaths from suicide by drowning, cars driven into the Shannon or people just walking into the river and taking their lives. It is always very sad and it leaves the family and friends in a state of shock.
The Minister has confirmed that suicide is a felony. It was regarded at one time as self-murder and it carried with it certain consequences; thankfully, some are no longer in force, such as forfeiture of goods and chattels of the deceased and the denial of a Christian burial. The Minister has referred to the religious aspects. Attempted suicide, as we know, is a misdemeanour. In this age of entitlement it is inappropriate for society to treat suicide as a crime. Indeed, some 25 years ago there were proposals to abolish the offence but nothing happened.
I congratulate the Minister for Justice for indicating that he will bring forward not just a Suicide Bill but a Bill that will deal with other aspects of the criminal law, such as punishment of prisoners, penal servitude, hard labour, whipping and so on.
It is undesirable and wrong that criminalisation should add to the terrible tragedy and loss that accompanies such events, as well as compounding the grief of the family, friends and community. There is the subsequent inquest, the police inquiries, the sad funeral, at a time of great grief for the family and friends of the deceased.
The Minister has indicated he agrees with the principle of Senator Neville's Bill. Therefore, it would be appropriate for the Senator to withdraw the Bill and await publication of the Government Bill which the Minister has indicated will be ready shortly. That Bill will deal with other matters relating to the abolition of suicide which are not covered in Senator Neville's Bill. Obviously that would be preferable, but it is a matter for the other side of the House. It is their Private Members' Bill, but if the Senator proceeds with it we, on this side of the House, will oppose it in view of the explanation given by the Minister.
May I compliment Senator Neville on bringing in this Bill, on the research which he has obviously put into it and on the humanity and the feeling for people which was evident in everything he said this evening.
This Bill has already received considerable attention outside the House. There have been a number of radio programmes, discussions and newspaper articles. That is certainly all to the good, even if this Bill and this debate achieve nothing more than that. It will have done a public service in that regard because suicide is one of the great untouchables, one of the great subjects that people do not talk about openly. It is certainly true of myself, and probably true of most people of my generation, that we find it very difficult to talk frankly about suicide. We have tended to regard suicide in a certain way and this has inhibited proper public discussion on the subject.
Senator Neville made the point that there are researches in train which may very well produce drugs and if potential suicides can be identified in time the drugs may well be able to supply the chemical balance or redress the imbalance which may be a cause of suicide. If this debate focuses public attention on the question, if it encourages universities, medical schools and departments of psychiatry to undertake more research into the problem, if it dispels some of the myths that have surrounded the subject of suicide over the years, then this debate will have been worth while. I compliment Senator Neville on the campaign he has waged for some months, first to get his own party to agree to take this as a Private Members' Bill and then bringing it before the House this evening.
I listened very carefully to the Minister and certainly my party will study what he had to say very carefully. His contribution was very humane, rational, sane and understanding and was impressive. If we go ahead and push this Bill to a vote it will not be because we have not taken into account what he said or that we, in any way, doubt his bona fides or his own very obvious compassion on this matter. My first instinctive reaction is that we will press ahead with this Bill for a number of reasons.
Although this case may be different, promises of legislation in this House cannot always be fully depended upon, for reasons which may not depend on the person who makes them. We have seen, especially in times of political turmoil, how slowly legislation makes its way through both Houses. I mentioned today on the Order of Business how little legislation we have seen in this current session and there has been little legislation in the other House. If this Bill, which has already been long in gestation, has to take its place in the parliamentary queue we could very easily find, this time next year, that the Bill is still not on the Statute Book. We may well have elections in the meantime. We could have a change of Minister and have a Minister less committed. All of these things could happen, although they may not. It is not easy for an Opposition party to accept the promise of a Bill to subsume this short simple Bill, without at least giving it some consideration.
I am also reluctant to withdraw the Bill at this stage because of a principle on which any party in Opposition feels very strongly, namely, the principle of Private Members' Bills being introduced and going as far as they possibly can, the principle that as far as possible Opposition Members should have the right to initiate and, hopefully, to enact legislation. For too long our political process has seen the exclusive domination of the Executive as far as legislation is concerned. This is a view which was expressed very strongly, as the Leader of the House well knows, in the recent debate on the reform of the Seanad and supported by all parties.
A very important principle is being made with the introduction of this Bill this evening. I believe it is now almost 30 years since a Private Members Bill had a Second Stage reading in the Seanad. I may be wrong on that, but that is my belief. It would be wrong on our part, therefore, not to go as far as we can under the rules with this Bill.
In speaking for the rights of Private Members' legislation, I would like to quote an authority whom I am sure is dear to the heart of the Minister and to whose utterances he listens very carefully. I refer, of course, to the chairman of the Progressive Democrats, Mr. Michael McDowell, the leader in exile, who in The Sunday Independent last Sunday under the heading of “That Strange Species up in the Dáil” stated:
My experience since 1987 suggests that the executive thinks of every stratagem to obstruct and prevent the passage of Private Members legislation. It is easy to "put down" an Opposition Bill by pointing out a technical defect and deriding the measures as flawed.
——which the Minister did not do this evening——
The bitter fruits of that policy of repressing legislators are to be found in our abject record as reformers of the law. Indeed the fact that Private Members stand so little chance of proposing changes in our laws makes for a situation in which they are little interested in the legislative process itself. In this context I remember——
——others might not remember it quite so well——
——that it was only because the Progressive Democrats insisted that Alan Shatter's two Bills on marriage breakdown and foreign adoptions were not voted down in the Dáil.
How could the Minister refuse an authority like that on a subject like that? However, I make the point seriously that the right to introduce a Private Members' Bill is a very vital part of the small armoury open to the Opposition politician. We should make the point that not all legislation has to come from or go through the Government. It would be a good thing if Bills of this kind upon which there is a wide range of agreement — in fact nobody in the House disagrees with the principle or the contests of the Bill — could be seen to come from a House of Parliament, from politicians, not from the Minister, the Department, or the Civil Service, but from the ordinary politicians.
If there are flaws in this Bill, if there are defects, if it does not go far enough, there is nothing to stop it having a full Committee Stage debate here, then going to the Dáil, where it will also have a Second Stage and Committee Stage debate. It is a simple Bill and there is nothing to prevent it emerging at the end of the process as a politicians Bill, a Bill which came from the ordinary Members as an answer to a specific problem. This Bill could be through this House in a matter of days and it could also be through the Dáil in a matter of days. There would be, I think, equal agreement there. It would redound to the credit of politicians generally if this were to happen.
The Minister knows, and we all know, the criticism which is being levelled at politicians at present, that we are merely voting fodder, we merely rubber stamp the acts of the Cabinet or of the civil servants, and so forth. At a time when more of our power will probably be ceded to European institutions, anybody who values these institutions would want to fight for our rights, for a greater role for Members of both Houses of the Oireachtas and I can see no better way to establish such a sense of identity and purpose than a greater role in private legislation, especially a Bill which is non-contentious, is designed to meet a specific anomaly in the law, and which could go through both Houses in a short time. If it needs to be improved, this could be done without any great difficulty. That is why I believe it is important that we do go through the full process with this Bill. The one difficulty that might have been in this Bill, that is, the possibility that euthanasia might become legal has been specifically dealt with by Senator Neville.
I may have been slightly mischievous in quoting the chairman of the Progressive Democrats, although on this occasion I do not disagree with him but the point he makes is a fair one. However, for all the reasons I have given, perhaps the Minister would change his mind on this Bill. If it goes through, as I believe it will, unopposed and the Minister brings in his Bill later, this Bill will be subsumed into it after a very short debate in the Dáil and Seanad. The Minister's Bill might not be introduced for a year or longer, and meanwhile the stigma of criminalising suicide remains. Senator Fallon spoke with great sincerity and obvious knowledge of the situation in his home town and the great distress and despair caused by suicides. Everyone of us could echo the experiences he recounted.
As I said at the outset, this Bill goes only a small way; it is not a cure for anything. It will have done a great deal of good — and again I commend the Senator who introduced the Bill — simply by focusing attention, by getting public debate going, whether it be on the Marian Finucane programme, the Gay Byrne programme or in the newspapers, by allowing people to come outside their fears, their inhibitions and talk about this question. It will have done great good if it encourages companies to invest money in research into the causes and the possibilities of preventing suicide and if it helps people to focus attention on the support services needed for those who are bereaved by suicide. If it does all those things, and even if it goes no further, it will have done a signal public service.
If the Minister accepts this Bill in the spirit in which it is brought forward here tonight, if he accepts it as a small Bill, worth while in itself, which could have fairly immediate effect, if he accepts it as an indication that Private Members, Opposition Members, ordinary Members, have a positive legislative function, however limited, in the Houses of the Oireachtas, and if a year or six months from now it is subsumed into his new legislation, then so be it. If the Minister accepts the Bill in that way this evening, it would be worth while and he will have shown himself as the open and reforming Minister we all believe he is.
Like most public representatives, I attend a good number of funerals. Over the years I have come across some exceptionally sad and tragic bereavements. However, I have to say that the saddest and most tragic bereavements of all were those in which there was some reason to believe the deceased had a hand in his or her own death. The pain and suffering caused by suicide to the family and relatives, and indeed to the friends and acquaintances, of the victim are invariably deeper and more traumatic than where death, no matter how sudden, results from any other cause. The fact that suicide is a criminal offence adds to this trauma, as does the ensuing police investigation and inquest. All these factors have contributed to a perception of suicide as an act to which a particular stigma attaches. Until comparatively recent times someone who took his or her own life was denied a church burial. Thankfully, this is no longer the case, but even though it is not, I agree with the Minister when he stated that as a society we have not yet learned how to deal with suicide.
In recent times there has been a growing body of public opinion that suicide o attempted suicide should no longer be a criminal offence. I was pleased to hea the Minister state that he now accepts this case and that he proposes to introduce legislation very soon to amend the law in this regard. I would like to join with the Minister and Senator Fallon in complimenting Senator Neville on his initiative in bringing forward this Private Members' Bill dealing with this matter. It is also worth remembering that, although suicide is a criminal offence at present, prosecution in this area are extremely rare. Many attempted suicides do not come to the notice of the Garda. I was pleased to note that the Minister stated that in the case of those that do, the attitude is taken that people who attempt suicide are in need of sympathy and treatment rather than punishment.
Experience in other countries has shown that change in the legal status of suicide has had no adverse influence on the suicide rate. I believe, however, that it should continue to be a very serious offence to incite or assist another person to commit suicide. Indeed, I would consider that the maximum term of imprisonment which is proposed for this offence in section 2 should be substantially greater than ten years.
I always understood that the suicide statistics which are available do not represent accurately the true situation and I believe most people will accept this as a fact. According to the figures in the official statistics in 1990 there were 311 self-inflicted deaths officially recorded in this country. Most people would agree that this figure seriously underestimates the true extent of death by suicide. It is also, regrettably, an accepted fact that suicide is on the increase, especially among young people. It is difficult, if not impossible, for the ordinary lay person to imagine the type of stress or pressure that drives a person to suicide and yet in many cases this stress or pressure does not manifest itself beforehand even to people very close to the suicide victim. This is one of the reasons in the case of such bereavement why there can be so much recrimination as the people left behind blame themselves for not having seen in advance the warning signs which they feel must have been there.
I would like to pay a tribute to the self-help or support groups for bereaved persons which have been established in many parts of the country. Such groups can help to ease very considerably the sense of pain and loss felt by bereaved persons and they can be particularly helpful in the case of persons bereaved by suicide. I would also like to join in the tribute paid by Senator Neville to the Samaritans for the great counselling service they provide and which I am sure has helped very many people who may have been contemplating suicide to come to terms with the problems and pressures they experienced.
I support the concept that suicide should cease to be a crime, but I am prepared to wait for the Bill which has been promised by the Minister. Therefore, I hope the Senators on the other side of the House will accede to the request of the Minister to withdraw the Bill which they have brought before the House since the Bill the Minister has promised will be a more comprehensive reforming measure than that which is before us this evening.
I am not going to do as the leader of my party in this House did, namely, to strike the Minister with a quote from one of his Coalition colleagues. I thought that was particularly unfair to a Minister who is known to be a great lover and supporter of his Coalition colleagues. I am sorry that the Minister of State present does not understand that because he has only just joined us in the House.
I welcome this Bill and I am glad we have the support of a prominent member of the Progressive Democrats. While Senator Neville's introduction to this Bill was enlightened and forward looking, I have to say I thought the Minister's reply was very disappointing. I say that in the full knowledge that I believe — and I am on record as having said it — that the Minister for Justice has a fine record as a reforming Minister for Justice particularly in the Bills he has brought before this House in the past two years. He very cleverly dispensed with his other portfolio and handed it on as a poisoned chalice to another Minister. He now holds with a great degree of distinction the portfolio of Justice and he has a fine record of bringing to this House, reforming legislation of which he can be proud.
Consequently, I am sorry the Minister did not accept this Bill in its entirety or in its principle, because it was the same Minister who brought forward in this House the Criminal Justice Bill to abolish hanging. It was the same Minister who gave us a pledge in this House some time ago that it was his intention to bring forward legislation to decriminalise homosexuality and it was the same Minister who also amended the Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Bill in this House in a way which his predecessor refused to do. His willingness to accept liberal reforming amendments to legislation was in marked contrast to his predecessor. With that history in mind it was doubly disappointing to read the Minister's response to this Bill.
Senator Manning said, quite rightly, that the response from this side of the House will be to study the Minister's reply. That will not be a particularly arduous task, because it is only five pages long in very large print, double spaced. It was a very disappointing reply in that context, because the Minister provided very few figures, very little analysis, very little thinking behind the enlightened view which he claims to have. It is even more disappointing when he says he accepts the principle of this Bill but goes on to say that work has been going on on a similar Bill since 1967. I do not know what has been going on and I do not know what studies have been going on, but after 24 years we have five pages. That is not good enough. The Minister has disappointed this House by coming in and by parading the virtue of accepting the principle of the Bill and then providing no analysis of the Bill and no support for what he has to say.
I do not accept the assurance of the Minister that he intends to introduce legislation of this sort shortly. The disappointing aspect of the Minister's reply is that it is short of a full commitment. If he said that similar legislation would be introduced by February or March or some specific date next year, I would certainly accept the Minister's bona fides, but the fact that after 24 years of work he comes into us and he says "I will produce a similar Bill very shortly" is not acceptable, because, frankly, I do not fully believe him. We had a promise from the Minister that the Bill on homosexual law reform would be before this House before the end of this year but that promise has sunk without trace. I know and the rest of the House knows, that the Minister has particular problems within his party about that particular reforming legislation and that it is not going to see the light of day before this Chistmas. That is disappointing, and it is in that light that we have to consider the pledge he made on this Bill.
Like the Minister, I would be very loath to see the House divide on an issue like suicide. It is not the sort of issue we should divide on. The Minister had an option which he did not take and it is an option which Governments are, unfortunately, very reluctant to take and very rarely take. He could have given the kudos to the party introducing this Bill and said he accepted it in principle but that there were faults in it and, as Senator Manning so rightly said, he could have amended it on Committee Stage either here or in the Dáil, but he did not. He said the principle was fine but that there were certain complications which he did not go into——
And that the Bill was fine.
——but that he would shortly introduce his own Bill which would be about the same thing. That is unacceptable; it is insulting not only to those who framed this Bill but to this House. While I commend the Government for allowing the Bill to be published and discussed, I think they have fallen at the first fence by not allowing it to be passed. It is, unfortunately, a political decision on behalf of the Government not to allow this to go through. If their concern was as genuine as they make out, if there was a genuine worry about the implications of suicide, they would accept the Bill and amend it where they felt it was lacking. I do not believe that is their opinion. I believe that, in reality, they have taken the attitude that this Bill is all right but there is no way they are going to let an Opposition Bill through the Seanad. That is insulting to this House because this Bill was non-contentious politically in its introduction. There was absolutely no intention of embarrassing the Government or anybody else. If the Government want to oppose this Bill so be it, but I think it is a pity; I think it is churlish and I think it is petty.
I want to say a few words about suicide because that is the subject of the Bill. There seems to be such a wide consensus about suicide in this House that I wonder why this Bill was not introduced sooner. Nobody wants to be seen to oppose it, but one or two people want to have an excuse to oppose it. I suppose the truth is that it is a rather thornier and more difficult subject to approach than many of us really believed. As Senator Manning said, suicide is really a taboo. It is still a taboo in Irish society and in society outside Ireland. It is something which is preferably swept under the carpet. It is something you do not mention if you can avoid it, to the relatives of those affected by suicide. The reason for that, I suppose, rests not in the State's view of suicide but the churches' view of suicide. The churches of all denominations — the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of Ireland, etc. find suicide very awkward to deal with, but it is something of which they know they have to disapprove. They also take the attitude that it is wrong, but against which they can take no sanctions.
The appalling situation that we find ourselves in as a Government, a Parliament and a State is that we have taken this church attitude to absurd extremes by enacting into law the preaching of all churches, then making suicide criminalised and imposing a penalty for it. The absurdity of this Bill and this subject is that you obviously cannot impose a penalty for suicide. One cannot punish a dead person. It is very simple and the law looks very stupid imposing such a penalty, and imposing such a penalty for attempted suicide is quite unacceptable; and because, as the Minister said, it is 24 years since any prosecution was taken. All we are doing is legitimising something which is already acceptable, and yet the Minister will not accept the Bill.
There is no conflict among all the parties in this House about whether criminalising suicide is a deterrent or not. It is very difficult to prove, but I do not believe anybody on any side of the House believes that the fact that you could be punished for attempted suicide is going to deter anybody in the anguished mental state people get into when they are contemplating suicide. It is not a deterrent. The reasons behind this Bill are unanimously agreed and the only thing we are disagreeing about is the minor detail, which is the reason apparently that the Government want to divide the House.
I fully support what Senator Neville said about complicity. Obviously, complicity is a totally different crime and a different issue. What we are establishing here, whether we like it or not, is that, as far as the State is concerned, it is not wrong for people to take their own lives — in other words, that it is your own decision and it is not something in which the State has to interfere. That is something very new. In fact, it is quite revolutionary if we are going to establish it in statute.
We are also establishing that complicity in suicide is complicity to murder. That is right. That is the civilised attitude we must take, and which is taken internationally. That distinction is very important and it is one I know is accepted by the Government — your life is your own to take but you cannot interfere with the life of anybody else or be an accomplice in their taking their own lives.
Finally, I would like to banish the ghost of euthanasia which was raised by various commentators. This Bill has nothing to do with euthanasia and has nothing in common with it. It is not a Bill about euthanasia, nor does it tackle the subject. What this Bill recognises more than anything else is that suicide is an appalling mental condition. It is a medical condition, it is not in any way a criminal condition.
While I welcome the Bill and I welcome this recognition from the Government side, I deeply regret that the Minister and the Government have seen fit to play politics with this Bill by not accepting it. This Bill is non-contentious and non-partisan politically, and is the type of Bill the Seanad should debate, accept and pass without any difficulties or opposition. It is a great pity the Government have not given us the opportunity to set a precedent for Private Members Bills of a non-party nature getting through this House.
I commend the Bill to the House and congratulte Senator Neville for introducing it.
When is it proposed to sit again?
At 10.30 a.m. tomorrow.
The Seanad adjourned at 8 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 28 November 1991.