Presenting future stars?


JOHN McELLIGOTT, sole representative of the University of Limerick's Debating Union at the final of this years Irish Times Debate, looked nervous. It was the coiled up, nervousness of someone who realises that he has just made a terrible mistake and things could very well go seriously downhill from this point.

It was shortly after 8 p.m. last Friday, he was about to participate in his first Irish Times final and, at that moment, he didn't seem entirely happy about the prospect. In fact, deep down inside himself, in the dark pupil of his mind's eye, he could probably see himself taking the podium and opening his mouth to find he could only emit dry croaks and promptly keel over.

Nervousness is endemic to the final of a big debating competition. It is a spur to the orator and, perhaps unfortunately, a spur to the audience as well, who can react to a nervous speaker the way sharks react to thrashing and blood in the water. McElligott performed well on the night and gave of his best but as he paced UCD's arts block prior to entering the debating chamber he, like most of the other speakers that evening, was perhaps wondering if he'd be facing the sharks before the night was out.

This was the 37th final of the Irish Times Debate and the motion before the House was "That the punishment should fit the crime

The chairman for the evening, Progressive Democrat TD Michael McDowell, had already circulated the text of his proposed address earlier in the day, the content of which could probably be summarised as "lock `em up and treat `em rough".

As it turned out, it was a position with which some of the evening's speakers concurred heartily not only would some of them lock criminals up and throw away the key, they'd lock them up, throw away the key and then set fire to the prison.

The first speaker of the night was Jarlath Ryan of the UCG Literary and Debating Society, who proposed the motion. "There is a fine balance in society," he argued. "When someone commits a crime that balance is upset and there must be a merited response to the deed." The crime but be examined before the deterrent could be taken into account, with proportionality as the imperative.

Ryan's team mate, Ronan MacSweeney, took the view that the relation between punishment and crime should be like a hand fitting a glove, so it was probably safe to say that he wasn't talking about OJ Simpson's hand or, indeed, his glove. To increase the severity of sentences unreasonably was to engender fear in the public, he said, which would lead to fear rather than respect for the law.

He also argued against the view that prisons were not holiday camps, because he had "never heard of people trying to escape from a holiday camp".

The first speaker against the motion was Michelle de Brun, also of UCG's Lit and Deb, who argued for "a more personalised form of justice" to make the punishment fit the criminal, not the crime. "You're going to have to individualise it to such an extent that the pain exceeds the pleasure," she said. Her teammate Clodagh Beresford also emphasised the importance of pain above pleasure, possibly ignoring the fact that there are some people who would find a certain degree of appeal in the idea of pain exceeding pleasure.

De Brun was far from loath to take the extreme line, although her speech began to go off the rails slightly when she noted that 70 per cent of criminals were simply "basic deviants". Her assertion later led Paul McDermott of the King's Inns team to point out that, since deviance is essentially a turning aside from society's laws this meant that 30 per cent of criminals were basically law abiding citizens.

McDermott, proposing the motion, argued that "if you can't be trusted with what you do with your liberty, then you can't be trusted with your liberty". Only in the context of prison and balanced sentencing policy should efforts be made to rehabilitate offenders, he said. As his teammate Helen Boyle put it "If you offend, you deserve to be punished". They summarised their argument as a call for full sentences within an intelligent sentencing policy and a prison based rehabilitation programme.

The cynic could of course argue that the King Inns team, as budding barristers, have a vested interest in ensuring that as many people as possible tried to avail of the prison system.

Douglas Clarke of the TCD Historical Society took the view that the punishment should reflect not simply the crime but also the moral culpability of the criminal. He said the primary emphasis must be on the rehabilitation of the criminal, because "you can't punish the person and effectively rehabilitate (him)". His teammate Catherine Donnelly argued that rehabilitation reduces the rate of recidivism though Donnelly's purpose appeared to be only partly to argue and principally to engage in rhetorical scuffles with the opposition.

FOUR INDIVIDUAL speakers also participated in the final. A kilted Alex Massie of the TCD Hist, proposing, began well arguing that there was one law for the rich and another for the poor. He pointed to disgraced Guinness executive Ernest Saunders, the only man to recover from senile dementia, and Robert Maxwell "who wrote bouncing cheques before becoming a floating Czech himself".

Massie then threw caution to the wind and launched an assault on the morality of politicians which would not have been out of place in the windblown square of some Central American city teetering on the brink of insurrection. Politicians, he said, were the real criminals in our society, because they failed to address the social problems at the heart of crime and until they did they should all be voted out of office. Chairman McDowell nodded in sage agreement.

The aforementioned John McElligott of the UL Debating Union, opposing the motion, accused Massie of indulging in a "ridiculous non sequitur", before pointing out the danger of punishment becoming susceptible to public hysteria about crime. The humane treatment of criminals, he said, was the hallmark of a civilised society.

Brian Hughes, proposing, of the UCG Lit and Deb, was hampered by an iridescent waistcoat so horrifying that the fashion police immediately set up an incident room. He argued for severe sentencing for serious crimes, while adopting alternatives to prison for more minor infractions, including house arrest, fines and community service. Disproportionate sentences, he said, would not only affect the accused but might also lead a jury to resist a conviction.

Finally, James McDermott of the UCD Literary and Historical Society opposing, played so much to the gallery that he just about stopped short of climbing into it and giving his speech from there. "I was sitting at home last night when the doorbell went," he began. "Two weeks earlier, the dustbin went . . ."

He took the view that it was necessary to address the causes of crime and to ensure that those who offended were actually caught, rather than merely to look at punishments.

The judging process which followed was one of the lengthiest for some years. The young years of some of the competitors flew away from them like leaves in an autumn wind as they waited for a result. And waited. And waited. Inside the debating chamber, someone opined that if the punishment should fit the crime then Christina Murphy, E&L's august editor, should be made to sit the Leaving Certificate until she got enough points for pharmacy.

Eventually a verdict was reached. The King's Inns team of Helen Boyle and Paul McDermott were presented with the Demosthenes trophy for best team by the president of the adjudicating panel, Christina Murphy, the fourth time the Inns have won this section of the competion. The UCG Lit and Deb team of Jarlath Ryan and Ronan McSweeney were runners up.

The best individual speaker was Douglas Clarke of the TCD Hist, who now joins Boyle and McDermott for a debating tour of US colleges in Texas, Oregon and Alaska next month, sponsored by Aer Lingus and The Irish Times. The runner up in the individual section was James McDermott of the UCD L&H, coincidentally the brother of team winner Paul.

This year's final was not, perhaps, a vintage one, though the overall standard of debating in this year's competition marks an improvement on previous years.

"The level of oration tonight was very high but the level of argumentation left something to be desired," said Kerida Naidoo BL, the convenor of this year's competition. Given that so many of the participants were actual or intending students of law, he said that it was unfortunate that some actually got points of law wrong "It bodes ill for the future of the profession and the criminal classes."