The Security State and Constitutional Justice

UCC logoAt the Irish Jurisprudence Society (IJS) Symposium on Jurisprudence and Legal Theory at University College Cork, the first paper was delivered by Dr Shane Kilcommins (UCC), who spoke about The Security State and Constitutional Justice: the dangers of ignoring a ‘rights-based conception of the Rule of Law’ that ensures that ‘the majority cannot travel as fast or as far as it would like’. His paper traced the present history of penology from Michel Foucault to David Garland. Garland’s work sees the present as a time of the decline of the rehabilitative ideal, the (re)emergence of punitive sanctions and expressive justice, focus on the perspective of the victim, protection by (rather than from) the state, and the (re)emergence of the prison. In many ways, Irish criminologists can point to a similar development in Ireland: the ‘tooling up’ of the executive power of the state thanks to a hyperactive legislature wanting to be seen to be tough on crime.

Kilcommins’ key point however, is that we must not overstate this development, we must not be misled by the uniqueness of the present. He cites Michel Foucault: “we should have the modesty to say to ourselves that the time we live in is not the unique or fundamental or irruptive point in history where everything is completed and begun again”. Hence, in Kilcommins’ view, Ireland in the early 21st century doesn’t quite fit the Garland narrative; the position is much more nuanced and contradictory, with strong pulls in the opposite direction. For him, the Irish criminal justice is becoming more disaggregated and more contradictory. It is more principled but also more repressive, more instrumental but also more expressive. It continues to emphasise protection from the State, but increasingly also protection by the State. It embodies more authoritarianism but also more pluralism. It involves more monopolised criminal control but also more fragmentation and blurring of boundaries. In particular, for him, whilst legislation is more control-based along Garland lines, the courts are operating as a check on these developments:

The liberal ideology of legalism and constitutionalism has delivered, and continues to deliver, significant protections to those accused of crime that set some limits to the power of the State and the ‘tyranny of the majority’. Though discounted in crime control literature, it has a power and a reach that remains significant and real. Its embedded nature offers more than token resistance to newly emerging, more control orientated, orthodoxies. To dismiss it, or to afford it epiphenomenal status only (as ‘law in books’ or ‘paper rules’), is to neglect its capacity to check power and to offer sustained and dogged opposition to the creation of a ‘culture of control’ society.

Referring to Ronald Dworkin, he argued that the judiciary is by and large constrained by gravitational force of earlier decisions, so that the implementation of crime control legislation runs into a conflicting narrative of rights-based discourse. However, Kilcommins is realistic about the extent of this counter: it is not a complete response, and it is too easy to make complacent assumptions about the unity of law. Nevertheless, he concluded that we should still not close ourselves off from the continued appeal of constitutionalism, legalism, human rights, the internal logic of law, and judicial craft, all of which remain strongly imbricated in the cross-currents of the Irish criminal justice system.