Sunday 26 May 2019

Europe court rules prisoners should be let vote in elections

Ben Quinnand Conor Sweeney

IRISH prisoners are likely to be casting votes in future elections as a result of a landmark decision yesterday by the European Court of Human Rights.

It ruled that the rights of a former British prisoner who was convicted of killing a woman with an axe had been breached when he was banned from voting.

The case is set to change the face of the British penal system, and have a similar impact in Ireland.

Basing his case on the "right to free elections" contained in the European Convention of Human Rights, John Hirst (54) had battled his way through the British legal system before the case finally reached the Strasbourg-based human rights court, which is not part of the EU, but the Council of Europe.

By a 12-5 majority, the Court upheld voting is "a right and not a privilege" and should be available in almost all circumstances.

The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) last night called on the Irish Government to take the ruling into account "allow Irish prisoners an opportunity to exercise their franchise".

"The reality is that there is no legal barrier to this," said Rick Lines, Executive Director of the IPRT.

"The Government needs to look at our legislation and bring it into line with this ruling.

"It would be ridiculous for them to defend the current position in Irish courts because they would inevitably lose in Europe."

Ireland is one of 14 European countries likely to be affected by the ruling.

The precise effect is not clear, since Irish prisoners are not formally banned from voting, as they are in the UK, but they are not facilitated in any way to either vote by post or to leave prison temporarily to cast a vote.

A spokesman for the Justice Minister gave a cautious reaction last night, warning that it was too early to give a clear response.

While not formally blocked, there is still no way a prisoner, except someone on temporary release can vote in an Irish election.

The only Irish people entitled to a postal vote are gardai, Irish diplomats, members of the defence forces serving abroad, the disabled and those who can prove they are out of the country for work purposes.

In response to a query from the Sinn Fein TD Aengus O Snodaigh last year on the possible right for postal votes by prisoners, the Justice Minister, Michael McDowell, made it clear he would not like to see the inmates of any one jail all getting the right to vote in the same constituency.

A case similar to that taken by John Hurst was taken in Ireland by Stiofan Breathnach, also known as Stephen 'Rossi' Walsh, who won his case in the High Court, but subsequently lost in the Supreme Court in 2001 on a prisoner's right to vote.

It ruled that it was an unreasonable burden on the prison administration to bring every prisoner to a polling station.

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