Isle of Man to decide future of corporal punishment

April 12, 1993|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

DOUGLAS, Isle of Man -- The people on this island in the Irish Sea are only slowly accepting the conventions of modern Europe.

They have abolished hanging. They have voided their laws against homosexuals. Now they are being asked to formally throw away the cane and the birch, the last-resort measure of corporal punishment for the violent and incorrigible.

Are they ready to go that far? Are the Manx people, as they like to refer to themselves after the Celtic language once spoken on the island, ready to embrace the '90s and be truly modern?

Not according to John R. Gelling. He heads a lobby called Island Concern. "There has been such a public outcry I believe it will be left on the statute books," he predicted. "We are one of the few places that retain the birch, and we have found it a great deterrent."

Mr. Gelling and the 90 people in his group and their sympathizers think those who want to keep the birch are not so much behind the times as ahead of them.

With the incidence of violent crime growing on mainland Britain, and even here (by 2.3 percent last year, according to Chief Constable Robin Oake), they expect the option of a return to corporal punishment to grow more appealing to people everywhere as things get worse.

"I think in years to come we will have use of the birch," Mr. Gelling said. "There are people on the mainland who would like to have it today. If we take it off the books now, we'll have a devil of a time getting it back on again."

Miles Walker, the island's chief minister and head of the Manx parliament, or Tynwald -- a Viking institution planted here over a thousand years ago, which makes it the world's oldest uninterrupted national legislature -- said he is certain the birching law will be expunged from the statutes when it is debated in the House of Keys (the Tynwald's lower chamber) on April 27.

"It is an emotive issue," he conceded. "But the majority in the Isle of Man [accepts] that the birch will not be used again, that birching is a penalty that is finished."

Whether it is or isn't finished as a legal tool will be settled April 27. But certainly, birching is infrequent. It has not been carried out since 1972. In that year a young boy who attacked another boy was sentenced by a magistrate to be whipped. The boy was taken to a police station. His trousers were pulled down. A constable lashed him three times across his buttocks with several long birch rods bound together in the traditional manner.

That case went to the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled in 1978 that the Isle of Man was in violation of the Convention on Human Rights, which Britain signed in 1953. It caused deep chagrin in London.

The Isle of Man is a crown protectorate, not actually a part of the United Kingdom. But Queen Elizabeth II is its monarch, and Britain takes care of its foreign affairs. It is supposed to enjoy home rule. Thus the birching law presented a dilemma: Does home rule mean real home rule, or can Britain tell the Isle of Man what laws it may or may not have?

A compromise was reached in 1981 when Britain, in effect, said it would not force the Isle of Man to rescind its corporal punishment laws so long as they were never enforced. They weren't, and most people on the island have lived happily with this until today.

Actually, the move to get rid of the birch originated with the magistrates here, confronted as they were with a certain number of violent young offenders and no way to deal with them. Unable to prescribe the birch and lacking a lockup for juveniles, the magistrates appealed to the government to devise alternative sentences for them to apply.

Mr. Walker and his ministers revised the system of criminal penalties. Birching would be gotten rid of, and a new "secure accommodation" for juveniles built -- in other words, a jail.

It seemed reasonable. A law that can't be used is pointless, Mr. Walker said. He also doubted its deterrent effect on those known as "lager louts" and other disruptive youths on the island, or those who came over on the ferries from the mainland.

Mr. Walker said he expects resistance to the abolition of the birch. Some think he underestimated it.

According to Thomas St. John Bates, counsel for the House of Keys, "Most people on the island don't know that what is being repealed [is] a law that provides sentences of caning [six strokes] for boys as young as 10." Boys between the ages of 17 and 20 can get up to 20 strokes.

Maybe because of this ignorance of the severity of the law, and maybe for some other reasons, Mr. Bates thinks the "repeal bill is in some political difficulty."

In fact, he and others in the House of Keys expect it not to be approved on April 27 by the necessary majority. They think Mr. Walker will have to devise a compromise, leaving part of the whipping law in place.

What is the appeal of draconian laws to many of the 70,000 people who occupy this lovely island of gently rising mountains cloaked in yellow gorse, and blunt cliffs that plunge into the sea?

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