Dáil Éireann - Volume 337 - 30 June, 1982

Ceisteanna—Questions. Oral Answers. - Commuting of Death Sentence.

2. Mr. G. Birmingham asked the Minister for Justice if he will introduce legislation to provide a statutory basis for the present procedure whereby death sentences have been commuted to long sentences of imprisonment or penal servitude.

Mr. Doherty: I am not aware of any need for a statutory procedure for something which, according to the legal advice available to me, is provided for in the Constitution itself. The relevant provisions are in Articles 13.6 and 13.9. Indeed there might be doubt about the appropriateness or even the validity of any legislation that purported to regulate the power of commutation of death sentences, a power which under the Constitution is exercisable by the President on the advice of the Government.

However, if the Deputy has any legal arguments in support of the introduction of such legislation perhaps he would communicate them to me in writing and I shall have them examined.

Mr. Shatter: I put it to the Minister that it would be more appropriate if legislation conferred a discretion on the courts to impose sentences of imprisonment having regard to the reality that there has been no capital sentence carried out here for over 20 years. Would it not be more appropriate that this legislation be enacted rather than the courts, as they must do at present, passing sentences of hanging for capital offences?

Mr. Doherty: As I stated, if the Deputy feels, as he appears to, that we should have such legislation, I would be glad to receive in writing his views in support of [339] that claim. I have made my point in regard to the other matter.

Mr. Quinn: Would the Minister agree that the most effective form of legislation would be that which abolishes the death penalty altogether?

Mr. Doherty: That is a separate question.

Mr. Shatter: Is the Minister seriously suggesting that there is some sort of constitutional difficulty in conferring the power on the courts to pass sentences of imprisonment for capital murder? That is not the case and I ask the Minister not to mislead the House in that regard.

Mr. Doherty: I am not misleading the House and the Deputy is trying to misinterpret what I am saying.

Mr. J. Mitchell: The Minister referred to articles in the Constitution but will he not agree that the Constitution does not explicitly confer any right to make conditional the commutation by the President? Would he not agree that there is some doubt as to the legal or constitutional validity of commuting a capital sentence to any specified term of imprisonment? If this is the case would he not agree that there is need for legislation?

Mr. Doherty: As I have already said, if Deputy Mitchell supports new legislation I would be glad to have his submission.

Mr. Shatter: Is there not a clear need for legislation? There is a distinct possibility that if the President imposes sentences of imprisonment in addition to commuting a death sentence those impositions of imprisonment by the President may be judged invalid by the courts and persons who should be sentenced to terms of imprisonment may get off scotfree.

Mr. Doherty: I support the Deputy's argument. I would be prepared to listen to it.

[340] Mr. J. Mitchell: Might I ask——

An Ceann Comhairle: I have already allowed six supplementaries. We must allow other Deputies to have a chance.

Mr. J. Mitchell: We are dealing with a fundamental case of human life. The Minister seems to be implying by his replies that there might be some doubt and that he would be prepared to listen to representations in this regard. If he thinks there may be doubts, would he not take the initiative and put beyond all doubt the President's powers to commute the death sentence by proposing specified terms of imprisonment?

Mr. Quinn: We are into sharp practice now.

Mr. J. Mitchell: The Minister has nodded his agreement and by so doing is implying doubt also.

Mr. Doherty: The Deputy misinterpreted the nod once again.

Mr. J. Mitchell: The nod will not appear in the record but this comment will.