Irish Government feared death penalty could escalate Troubles

Charles Haughey

Charles Haughey

The Irish Government raised concerns with senior British ministers about the possibility of a return to capital punishment in the UK.

British and Irish Government papers released in Belfast and Dublin show that a House of Commons debate on reinstating the death penalty led Dublin to write to both the Secretary of State and Foreign Secretary in 1983 to express its concern at the implications for terrorist violence.

A motion by Conservative MP Sir Edward Gardner to bring back the death penalty led to an amendment in the Commons which called for capital punishment for murder “resulting from acts of terrorism”, a proposal eventually rejected by 245 votes to 361.

An NIO file records how the Republic’s Foreign Minister, Peter Barry, said that he wanted to formally express his government’s position.

He said: “The execution of Irish people under British law for politically inspired offences would almost certainly create a situation worse than anything our two Governments have experienced during the past 13 years and would adversely affect the climate of our relations.

“The IRA, the INLA and other terrorist organisation would take full advantage of their opportunity.”

However, he added that although he wished the Irish Government’s position communicated to the cabinet, the Dublin administration would “scrupulously respect the fact that the vote on this motion is a matter of conscience to be decided upon by the individual members of the House of Commons”.

A file released in Dublin also shows how Charles Haughey’s government resisted attempts to bring in an EU-wide ban on the death penalty over fears that the Troubles could spiral out of control. Files detail the Dublin cabinet’s opposition to the proposed abolition of capital punishment in 1982 - nearly 10 years before Ireland banned it.

In an August 1982 government memo then foreign affairs minister Gerry Collins said Ireland’s retention of the death penalty had “created difficulties for us” internationally.

He was coming under pressure at a Council of Ministers of Europe summit to sign up to a new protocol banning the practice, at least in so-called peace time.

Then justice minister Sean Doherty said Ireland could not adopt the plans as envisaged because they would not allow the government to use the death penalty for “securing public safety and preservation of the State” during “a time of armed rebellion or of a national emergency”.

The memo describes the Troubles as a “national emergency” which affected the vital interests of the state.

It was almost a decade later when the death penalty was removed form the Irish Statute book in 1990. It was prohibited by the Constitution only in 2002.




Back to the top of the page