Prisoners' right to vote should be given if rehabilitation is aim
In 2005, a prisoner in a British jail, John Hirst, obtained a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg that it was not permissible under the European Convention to have a blanket ban so as to deprive all prisoners of the vote at elections.
States have a fairly wide discretion to have a limited ban on prisoners' voting rights – but not a total ban.
In the British parliament, both the Conservative and Labour parties have resisted the necessity to introduce even limited voting rights for prisoners.
The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, has said that the idea of giving prisoners the vote makes him "physically sick".
While it is understandable that a legislator might disagree with a court ruling, it is hard to understand why conceding the vote to prisoners is such a big deal.
After all, surely the first task of punishment is to help to rehabilitate the offender so that, on release, he can become again a useful citizen.
To give prisoners the vote is to help them have a sense of responsibility and civic duty. Those who are "free" are always urged to vote as a matter of duty and civic pride.
Here, since the Electoral Act, 2006, prisoners have a right to be registered in the political constituency where they would normally live, when not in prison. Prisoners have no right to be given physical access to a ballot box by temporary release.
But if a prisoner happens to be on parole or temporary release at the time of an election, he is free to vote where he is registered.
The 2006 act allows prisoners to vote by post. They cast their votes by postal ballot for the constituency of their address.
There was cross-party support for the bill when it was introduced, centred, as it was, on encouraging the rehabilitation of offenders through underlining their responsibility to themselves and society by way of voting rights. It meant the State was also meeting its obligations under the European Convention
For the general election of 2007 just 451 out of nearly 3,500 prisoners actually registered to vote; only 14pc of those eligible to vote registered to do so.
According to the Irish Penal Reform Trust, the numbers have dropped further to about 4pc. This shows there is high degree of voter apathy – but at least the prisoners have a choice.
In a letter to the 'Times' of London on November 2 signed by a number of former judges (including a former lord chancellor and lord chief justice) as well as by eminent academic lawyers, Mr Cameron was warned that he is "set upon a course that is clearly unlawful" in inviting the House of Commons "to defy our treaty obligations to obey the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights by refusing to implement its ruling that at least some of our prisoners should have the right to vote".
It is hard to credit why so obdurate a stand should be taken for a 'right' that may not be very much cherished in any event – if the Irish experience is to be taken as typical.