In many respects what I have to say will probably reflect, in the language of a younger generation, the same sentiments as Senator Whitaker expressed. There is a problem of violence in Irish society, both political and nonpolitical. Because of the continuing violence of the paramilitary organisations, we now tend to tolerate on some occasions a level of violence from the security forces, both North and South, that would not have been tolerated in the past. I have never understood how the violence of a young deprived child in Seán McDermott Street is not understandable and the violence of a garda under severe provocation in Merrion Road is understandable. Violence is always wrong and anybody who overreacts and behaves violently ought to be criticised and condemned by society, irrespective of the provocation. I say that as one who has some experience of violence from the work I have been involved in and I will mention that later. There are various ways of responding to the problem of serious violence. It is regrettable that the tradition of non-violence is not a bigger part of our history and that the role of non-violence in the period of Daniel O'Connell in particular, when he resolutely refused to contemplate in any circumstances, the use of armed force to achieve his political ends, has been omitted from the analysis of our history and has not played a bigger role.
Gandhi managed to liberate 600 million people by the use of non-violence. Political leaders worry and are concerned implicitly, even if they do not realise it, with non-violence because the trouble with a society which is dedicated to non-violence is that you have to develop a high level of consciousness among people about the power and the worth of non-violence. It is not something you can whip up and exploit emotionally as can be done with slogans about nationalism and war. Politicians and political leaders are often afraid of violence and this is by way of an introduction to what I want to address to one of the problems of violence in society, which is, the apparent willingness of some societies at some times to use violence to protect that society.
Some day I hope to talk about this on the military level but today I want to talk about it on the individual level of the sort of penalties society chooses to use to deal with murder and violent crime. There has been some discussion on the deterrent value of capital punishment and some people surprised me by saying that, if it could be proved to them that capital punishment had a deterrent value, they would revise their views on the abolition of capital punishment.
I would like to make my own position perfectly clear. Capital punishment is immoral and degrades a society which chooses to operate it. It is morally wrong for any society to take to itself the right to meet terror with terror. That is my position; other people are entitled to their opinions. I doubt its deterrent value but I will discuss that later. Capital punishment is wrong in itself.
I ought to make something clear because one of the emotional arguments, an understandable one, that has been used in this debate is the need to protect the police force. I have no desire to suggest that our police force should have to meet armed violence without proper protection from our society. I do not know how many Members of this House have had to deal with violence and, to an extent, with armed violence I am not claiming to be unique in this and I am not trying to make myself out to be anything like a saint in spite of kind words that are occasionaly said about me by well intentioned people in the media. I am a very ordinary person in my private life. Anybody who is involved with the Simon Community experiences violence on an individual level and sometimes on a collective level. I have had to deal with a person who had a carving knife stuck in his belt and who wanted to stab the person who stood behind me. I also had to deal with people armed with bicycle chains who were directing them at me, with people carrying knives and people who used violence, not for political reasons but because of their own disturbed and distorted natures. I do not believe that that would justify me in using excessive violence to deal with that person. Anybody in the organisation with which I am associated who overreacted to violence would cease to be a member of the organisation. I do not believe that the gardaí are the only people who sometimes have to deal with violence and that they are the only ones who have to deal with people who are criminally dangerous. I believe, passionately, that there is another way to deal with most of the violence in our society and I will talk about the residual problem later on.
I want to talk, in that context, about the whole question of deterrents to crime. If the deterrent is out of proportion to the crime, in general that will deter people. I have no doubt that in relatively recent days when castration was often the penalty for rape in the United States, that was, to some extent, a deterrent because the penalty was out of proportion. In some of the Middle Eastern countries where amputation of a hand has been returned as a penalty for theft, that is a deterrent. Does the deterrent factor make those penalties conceivable in our society? If it does not, I fail to see how the concept of taking a life as a penalty for a life could ever be thought of as a deterrent. A deterrent can be wrong in itself and what is wrong in itself cannot be justified by its deterrent value.
A considerable amount of work done around the world would suggest that the locking up of people in prison has no real deterrent effect, other than the fact that some people who would otherwise commit crimes are locked up for six months, nine months, or a year. There is no real evidence to suggest that criminals of any category will be deterred by penalties. That is my experience and I know a fair number of people with criminal records. The deterrent that bothers people is the fact that they might be caught. If they think they will not be caught, they will not think about the possible penalty. Whether it is three, six, nine, 12 months, two years or life imprisonment, when people are contemplating murder these things do not deter most of them. I am not just talking about petty thievery, but about serious crimes, crimes of violence and, indeed, murder. The one person I know who has been convicted of murder could just as easily have murdered a policeman as the person he murdered. It was in a squabble, he was drunk, and he was convicted of murder. If the victim had been a uniformed policeman, then we would be talking about capital punishment. It could just as easily still be a policeman or a prison officer, because this fellow is violently inclined. I fail to see why, if he happened to kill a policeman or a prison officer rather than an innocent bystander, we should distinguish between those two crimes.
There is another way to deal with crimes, prisoners and prison. Some of the experiences of the Simon Community with whom I work on a very local and individual level have suggested that many people who are condemned as habitual criminals are not really as dangerous or harmful to society as people would imagine. I would like to mention a man who is closely associated with Mother Teresa of Calcutta but who is rarely talked about to the same extent — a man called Jean Vanier. One of the reasons why Jean Vanier is not so popular is that a lot of the work he does, apart from working with mentally handicapped people, is done with prisoners, and usually not petty criminals but long-term murderers, rapists and such people. He describes those as the wounded of society.
It would help us if we were to try to develop the compassion in our society which sees people as wounded. Although I detest the activities of the Provisional IRA and other paramilitaries and what they stand for, I still believe that they are the product of one of the most wounded urban societies that western Europe has ever known. That needs to be said and reiterated. What they do is appalling and scandalous, but they are the wounded products of a wounded society. There is a great need, in the light of the appalling crimes that people like these commit, for a society which claims to be civilised, and motivated by Christian principles, to keep that value of compassion and understanding very much alive in any debate on how to deal with the problem. Otherwise, if we are talking purely about punitive methods, we are talking not about protecting society but about getting our own back. We are talking, effectively, about meeting terror with terror. That is immoral and wrong and it degrades our society far more than the activities of those organisations.
I come now to the question of the two kinds of murder that I have already mentioned. I have no idea why this severe penalty was instituted, other than in answer to an effective garda lobby, as they are entitled to lobby on this issue. Life imprisonment technically means life imprisonment. The fact that the compassionate and perfectly justifiable practice has been to make life imprisonment mean roughly seven to ten years does not mean that anybody who is sentenced to life imprisonment is going to serve anything less than life, unless there is a good reason to believe that he will not commit a crime again. I do not understand why we should sentence somebody to a totally barbaric sentence of 40 years in prison.
The Minister, in one of the purple patches in his speech, quoted an Australian reference to the destroying of life. Are we to substitute a slow destroying of life for a speedy destroying of life? That is what we are doing if we lock somebody up for 40 years, irrespective of mitigating circumstances and the context in which the crime was committed. Just because certain crimes are committed, we lock them up for 40 years. That is, effectively, destroying a life. I am ashamed of a Government which substitutes a mandatory penalty like that, linked in with provisions to make it difficult for it to be repealed. That is slowly, instead of speedily, destroying life. It brings into question what Government see as the function of imprisonment. Are we locking up these criminals to deter other people, to prevent crime or to get our own back? I suspect, in a lot of the talk about the less pleasant crimes, particularly the politically motivated crimes and things that are done in the name of political attainment, and often, too, for criminal purposes, many people are motivated by the desire to get their own back. If there is any hint of vengeance in the proposal for a sentence of 40 years, then, again, it degrades us and humiliates our society. I do not understand the provisions for that.
Prison, I used to believe, had a rehabilitative purpose. I do not know whether that is still the philosophy of the Department of Justice but I understood prison was primarily seen as an attempt to rehabilitate. How can you rehabilitate somebody if you are going to lock him up for 40 years? How are the two objectives reconcilable? I do not understand the restriction on repeal. Neither do I understand the extraordinary anomaly where, in Northern Ireland, a Government that many Members of this House would regard as hostile to the interests of the Irish people or as less than sympathetic, can allow 50 per cent remission for the sort of crimes that are specially listed in this Bill, whereas in our society the maximum remission we will allow is 25 per cent. For instance, some people who were sentenced for the Miami Showband murder who got 35 years will be out, at the very most, in 17½ years. We will lock up their counterparts for 30 years.
One of the interesting aspects of sex discrimination is that women get more remission than men. I wonder will the Leader of the House raise that form of discrimination in the appropriate areas. I do not understand what we are going to do with these long-term prisoners or where we will put them. Will we put them in the Curragh so that we will have another 40 years of visiting committee reports recommending that the Curragh be closed down? Are we going to put them in Portlaoise Prison where Playboy and Mayfair are acceptable reading material for the prisoners but Bunreacht na hÉireann is not, because it is a security risk? I would like to know where we will put them, what we will do with them, how we will occupy them. Is there any thought on this, or is it simply a bit of shadow-boxing, knowing full well that the Government will recommend, under the Constitution, that these people should be given special remission and have their sentences commuted in the future? Are we putting something in here which means nothing and is just there to satisfy the gardaí? I do not like that sort of legislation. If they mean it, it is scandalous and if they do not mean it, it is equally scandalous and should have been left out. I will not support that section of the Bill on Committee Stage.
Life imprisonment is a satisfactory sentence, if there can be such a contradictory association of words. There is no such thing as a satisfactory sentence. I do not believe that the prison system works but if we must have a penalty which is proportionate to the crime, the present philosophy on life imprisonment is quite adequate. Capital punishment is fundamentally wrong and if we are going to talk about imprisonment we ought to talk at some future stage about what we propose to do with people who are in prison.