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Ireland's death penalty was a 'quaint throwback' but not everyone wanted to get rid of it

Thirty years ago, there were some political considerations.

Image: Shutterstock/Fer Gregory

FIFTEEN YEARS BEFORE the death penalty was abolished by the Irish people in a referendum, the country was coming under increased international pressure to end the practice.

Despite this, there was division within official circles about whether doing anything could be politically risky.

Details of these discussions have been revealed in newly released files from the Department of Foreign Affairs.

A briefing note from a civil servant to the then-First Secretary outlined these concerns even though, as it points out, Ireland didn’t even have an executioner to carry out such punishments.

The briefing note reads:

The death penalty in this country is largely a quaint throwback to the days when everyone else had one. As we no longer have a hangman, and almost the only country in the world in a position to train one is South Africa. There is no immediate prospect of execution in this jurisdiction.

That being said, the abolition of the death penalty would represent a strong political minus in the eyes of certain right-wing groupings, including the gardaí, the RUC and the DUP. While the step would be practically meaningless, it could be used in a politically damaging way.

“I imagine the moral dimension interests you not a whit,” the note adds.

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Ireland carried out its last execution in 1954 and by 1986 the sentence was only available for a number of serious offences including treason and the murder of gardaí.

In the intervening period the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by the President.

Then-Senator and current Minister Shane Ross introduced a private member’s motion seeking to abolish in 1984 but that bill stalled during Garret FitzGerald’s administration.

Lobbying from human rights organisations sought to bring Ireland into line with many other European countries and correspondence sent to TDs from members of Amnesty International kept the pressure on.

Template letter sent to the representatives ended with the plea:

Since the death penalty is a violation of the right to life, as proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, I want to stress Amnesty International’s opposition to this kind of punishment in all circumstances and without reservation.

Read: ‘Hanging is too mild for such a savage’: The story of the youngest man executed by the Irish State >

Read: 50% more people were executed last year than in 2014 >

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About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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