HC Deb 25 May 1972 vol 837 cc1634-46
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. William Whitelaw)

In my statement to the House on Monday I promised the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) that I would look into what he said about the use of derelict houses by gunmen shooting at the children of Kelvin School. Representations on this matter have been made by the Roden Street Tenants' Association; and Mr. John Laird, the Stormont M.P. for St. Anne's, has also interested himself in it.

Accordingly I decided to take action. Yesterday I signed an order under the Special Powers Act for the demolition of derelict houses in certain streets in the area which have been used several times lately by snipers. Work on the demolition is due to start today. This will make it easier to protect the school children and people who live nearby, who have been exposed to danger and provocation. I shall, of course, arrange for appropriate compensation.

I am glad to be able to tell the House that I have now set up the Northern Ireland Commission which is provided for in the Northern Ireland (Temporary Provisions) Act, 1972, and the names of its members will appear in answer to Written Questions in the OFFICIAL REPORT tomorrow and in the Library now. The Commission is a strong team, whose members have considerable knowledge and experience in various aspects of Northern Ireland affairs. I shall look to the Commission, whose first meeting will I hope be held at an early date, to help me not only in examining proposed Orders in Council but also in a wide range of matters which come to me by reason of my functions in Northern Ireland. I am very grateful to those who have agreed to serve.

On Tuesday there were a number of bomb explosions in Belfast which caused extensive damage to property but injuries only of a minor nature. A soldier of the King's Royal Regiment, Private Handley, was killed by a single shot from a sniper. On Monday evening a man was shot dead sitting outside a priest's house near Cookstown and another man was killed when returning home on Tuesday night. I am sure the whole House would wish to express its sympathy to the families of those concerned. Every effort will be made to track down and bring to justice those responsible for these crimes.

Yesterday I received a delegation from the Unionist Parliamentary Party which was led by Senator Andrews in the absence of Mr. Brian Faulkner, who, I am sorry to hear, is ill. The delegation expressed to me its serious concern about the security situation. I assured it that the security forces would continue to do everything in their power to protect the law-abiding community at large, of whose commendable restraint under provocation I was very conscious.

The situation remains tense and difficult, and the need for restraint on all sides is as great as ever. But the House will have noted with some hope the clear, determined and courageous expressions of a desire for peace which have come from the Bogside and Creggan districts of Londonderry.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

We welcome the appointment of the Commission, which, I am sure, will straddle the communities and the various interests. We note its advisory function and hope that it will. in particular, look at the problem of employment and economic development. Will it be able to raise matters with the Secretary of State? The right hon. Gentleman reminded us that, by the Act which this House approved, reference will be made to the Commission of Orders in Council which will eventually be destined for this House. Does he accept that this does not obviate the need for detailed consideration of these Orders in Council here, particularly in some cases? Stormont, in its last months, was not functioning properly in the watchdog sense of the term.

Is the Secretary of State aware that we commend the use of normal compensation terms for the property demolished?

We wish to be associated with the right hon. Gentleman's words of condolence to those involved in the killings. All the killings were equally reprehensible, but does he agree that the killing of Mr. William Hughes was not only evil but cowardly?

We note the cautious optimism concerning the desire for peace expressed in Londonderry. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that this desire is in no sense a lack of support for change in Northern Ireland but a rejection of political change by murder? In our view, the desire for peace stems from the change of policy, the initiative of eight weeks ago. An important part of this was a change of policy on internment. There seems little doubt that the provisional IRA wants internment; it thrives on it. Therefore, why not go further with the changed policy on internment without trial and, by declaration of intent, set a date for its end?

Mr. Whitelaw

First, the Commission is purely advisory in capacity. Secondly, it will be able to raise with me any matters it wishes. Thirdly, it does not in any way change the position of Orders in Council in this House. On the question of compensation for the houses which will be pulled down, I used the Special Powers Act only because of the need, on security grounds, for speed. I shall not be tied to its provisions concerning compensation.

We all deplore the killings. I note what the hon. Gentleman says in particular about Mr. Hughes.

On the question of cautious optimism about the incidents in the Bogside and Creggan districts of Londonderry, I confirm that the desire there is for an end to violence. That is the basis of the desire. Lastly, in all my actions on internment I must have regard to the security situation, and an end to violence makes the matter very much easier for me. No one has said that more often than I have.

Mr. Stratton Mills

Is the Secretary of State aware that the view of the Unionist Party about the Commission which he has announced today is that it is wrong to depend on appointing a Commission for advice on major matters rather than working through those elected by the people of Northern Ireland? Can my right hon. Friend give an assurance, as I am sure he can, that there will be no question of hiding behind the Commission and that all the responsibility ultimately will be borne by him?

The tragedy of violence still continues, but is my right hon. Friend aware that the broad mass of the people of Northern Ireland join in and reciprocate the desire for peace which has blossomed in the last 24 hours? We certainly hope that this process continues. However, can my right hon. Friend give the House some idea of the terms on which he is being pressed in this area, because he must realise that it will be too high a price to pay if they ultimately destroy security?

Mr. Whitelaw

I am aware of my hon. Friend's last point. In all my discussions I have to take that into account. I am equally aware of the Ulster Unionist Party's view about the Commission. As I have said, the Commission is purely advisory in character. I am only too well aware that in all these matters I must take ultimate responsibility. When my hon. Friend has seen the names of the members of the Commission I do not think he will find that they are people who are likely to allow me to hide behind them. In any event, I could not do that by the constitution.

I understand my hon. Friend's views on security and the cautious optimism which I expressed. I am grateful for what he has said.

Mr. Grimond

Is the Secretary of State aware that many people will share his view that the action of the women of the Bogside and Creggan districts is one of the most important and encouraging things which has happened in Ireland for many, many months? Unless the border is to be redrawn, the only hope for restoring peace is that the people themselves should throw out the IRA Fascist thugs. If they are to do that, surely they must be reassured about some of the anxieties they have expressed. Is this a matter which the Commission will consider?

It seems to me more than ever important that the political initiative which the right hon. Gentleman has already taken should be followed up and that the inhabitants of these areas should be reassured that they will not be subjected to what they have suffered before and that they can feel protected from the activities of terrorists in their area.

Mr. Whitelaw

I am grateful for what the right hon. Gentleman has said. The short time in my job has taught me the need for the utmost caution in the face of all developments, good or bad. I think that that is the right way for me to proceed at all times.

The question of further political initiative is a matter for discussion politically in the Government, with various parties in Northern Ireland and in this House, and is not so much for the advisory Commission, although I am naturally prepared to hear its views on it.

Mr. Pounder

With regard to my right hon. Friend's statement about the demolition of houses in Roden Street, may I, on behalf of the Stormont Member for that area, Mr. John Laird, and everybody else there, thank my right hon. Friend for the speed with which he has taken action? Am I right in assuming that the compensation which he will grant to the owners of the property will be more generous than would perhaps be permitted under the Special Powers Act? Secondly, yet another week has elapsed and we have heard nothing about the plans for the district council elections, the boundaries, the registers, or the periods for complaint against those registers. Can my right hon. Friend say anything on that score?

Mr. Whitelaw

I am grateful for what my hon. Friend has said about Roden Street. I particularly said that I would not be tied to the compensation provisions of the Special Powers Act. I have nothing to add at this stage about the district council procedures, but I note what my hon. Friend has said.

Mr. McNamara

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, although we welcome his action in speedily demolishing these houses, it was power taken under the Special Powers Act? When are we likely to have legislation to replace that iniquitous Act? Secondly, with regard to other legislation which is to come before this House, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that some of it had only reached Committee stage in Stormont, and Committee stage when there was no effective Opposition sitting in Stormont? For that reason, does he agree that a great deal of it was not really put under the microscope? Much of that legislation concerns defective materials, electricity supply, and various other matters which are the proper province for trade union representations to be made about the safety and employment prospects of their members. Will the right hon. Gentleman undertake to have full discussions with the trade unions concerned before that legislation comes before this House?

Mr. Whitelaw

On the hon. Gentleman's point about the Special Powers Act, I have been very careful not to use the Act, and I have said that I am reviewing it. In this instance, I did so only in the interests of safety and security, which, in the circumstances, I regarded as being of the highest importance. I note what the hon. Gentleman says about the legislation. I am having discussions with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and with others through the usual channels as to how we should handle the legislation in this House. The hon. Gentleman asked me finally about the possibility of discussions with interested parties in Northern Ireland. I have given the absolute undertaking that any legislation produced will be in draft form and that interested parties will be given every opportunity to comment on it to me.

Mr. Goodhart

While we appreciate the emotions of the women from the Bog-side and Creggan who came to see my right hon. Friend after the murder of yet another British soldier, may we press my right hon. Friend to acknowledge that the rule of law cannot be restored to the "no-go" areas by private enterprise alone? What protection does my right hon. Friend intend to give to those people in the "no-go" areas who are anxious to rid themselves of the rule of the IRA?

Mr. Whitelaw

In answer to my hon. Friend I should say that in my statement I gave a cautious welcome to the development, but I have to be equally cautious about it. There are many other factors which have to be taken into account in this matter.

Mr. Fitt

While the right hon. Gentleman is to be congratulated on getting anyone to serve on the Commission at this crucial stage, is he satisfied with its present composition or will he be prepared to appoint a further member to it who will be more acceptable to the two communities if that should prove to he necessary? Secondly, with regard to the compensation which is to be paid to the owners of the derelict houses in Roden Street, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there must be 600 or 700 empty houses in Belfast which the Catholic owners had to vacate because they were intimidated out of their areas? They have been given no compensation. Thirdly, on the question of internment, which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees), will the right hon. Gentleman agree that this is still the greatest single issue dividing the communities? There are elements in Northern Ireland who want to perpetuate partition against the overwhelming mass of opinion in both communities. Does the right hon. Gentleman appreciate that as soon as this block is taken away he will have the co-operation of all concerned in seeing that the initiatives that he has taken are given a chance?

Mr. Whitelaw

When the hon. Gentleman sees the names of the members of the Commission, I believe he will agree that it will be widely acceptable to a large number of people in Northern Ireland. The possibility of adding to it is certainly in my mind, if that becomes advisable. I do not rule it out. I note what the hon. Gentleman says about compensation, and I am prepared to consider these cases. I have made my position clear on internment, and I think that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate it, too. In my mind, it is bound up with my ultimate and firm responsibility for security, and I have a duty to this House and to the community in Northern Ireland to fulfil.

Mr. Molyneaux

Further to my right hon. Friend's reply to the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt), will my right hon. Friend assure us that he will set definite limits to the scope and the numbers of the various non-elected advisers during the period which the elected representatives of Northern Ireland have been set aside? Will he bear in mind the necessity to prevent a still further loss of confidence in parliamentary democracy?

Mr. Whitelaw

I have no intention of having a large Commission. I merely reserve the position of possibly adding a few members to it. I realise the temporary nature of the Act, and I accept it. This underlines the importance of political consideration for the future, which I accept absolutely.

Mr. Paget

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm some statistics which I have received from our research division which are to the effect that during the period of direct rule the average weekly rate of arrests has fallen by about two-thirds, the average weekly rate of shootings has rather more than doubled, and the average weekly rate of explosions has nearly doubled?

Mr. Whitelaw

Statistics in these matters, frankly, can be somewhat misleading. No one can tell what would have happened if the initiative had not been taken. That is a very important factor which has to be taken into account. As for the hon. and learned Gentleman's point about the increase in the various forms of violence, it is extremely important in no way to equate this to the question of arrests. I cannot believe that anyone could imagine that the long-term future of any community depended on an ever-increasing number of arrests and of ever-increasing internment. That is not a possible way for any community to proceed.

Mr. Haselhurst

Without building any hopes on recent developments in the Bog-side and Creggan, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether he is aware that there in a widespread feeling that these developments are further confirmation of the wisdom of his policy in not relying on military action against those areas?

Mr. Whitelaw

While I am grateful to my hon. Friend, I must remain very cautious about the outcome of any developments.

Mr. McManus

Will the right hon. Gentleman undertake to inquire immediately into two very serious matters which have been brought to my attention? The first of them has been brought to the right hon. Gentleman's attention. It concerns the administration of drugs to at least one of three prisoners arrested in Newry and brought under an ordinary police action to Newry Barracks on 29th April. The second is the almost daily intimidation of and attacks upon the people of the Tunnel area of Portadown, a town which the right hon. Gentleman will have been long enough in Northern Ireland to know has a tiny minority of Catholics in a largely Protestant population. The intimidation and attacks have come from forces ranging from the RUC to the Tartan gangs. Will lie investigate these matters immediately?

Mr. Whitelaw

On the alleged administration of drugs to prisoners, if that has occurred it is wholly improper. Any allegations will be investigated very carefully. As for intimidation in certain areas, if the hon. Gentleman has any specific points to put to me I shall be pleased to investigate them. My anxiety is that there tend to be too many allegations of intimidation on all sides. The less intimidation there is, the better it is for everyone in the whole community.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Is the Secretary of State aware that his announcement today about the pulling down of these derelict houses in Roden Street, which were used by known IRA terrorists as cover from which to shoot at Protestant schoolchildren, will be widely welcomed in the area? Is he aware, further, that the children come from Sandy Row, that the party to which I belong controls the ward taking in that area in the city council, and that it was as the result of representations originally made to us that this matter came to light?

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there is considerable gratitude among people in Northern Ireland for the announcement that he is giving £1 million immediately to the Co-operative store so that it can restock and so that those who lost their employment have the possibility of being re-employed in that store?

Will the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that the Act which brought into being his own office and this Advisory Commission provided that the Commission would be advisory only? Will he make it clear that it is an advisory body only and that there is no intention that it should usurp the authority of the elected represenatives sent to this House from Northern Ireland?

Will the right hon. Gentleman see to it that Members of this House representing Northern Ireland constituencies are consulted about Orders in Council and other matters which come before this House by way of legislation?

Would the right hon. Gentleman inform the House that this ray of hope that has been seen in Northern Ireland also must be viewed in regard to the statement that was made by the women who met him last night, who made clear that they were for the IRA and were looking for an amnesty for the IRA so that these IRA men could walk about where they liked? Will he assure the House that in future in Northern Ireland the law will be carried out for all sections of the people absolutely impartially?

Mr. Whitelaw

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's remarks about the houses. I have had talks as well with Mr. John Laird, the Stormont MP for St. Anne's, who urged much the same thing on me. I am glad that I have been able to take action in this regard.

I am grateful also to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks about the £1 million for the Co-operative store. I will do all I can to help repair those actions which tend to destroy employment in Northern Ireland. One can only say how utterly tragic this sort of action is in an area where there is already such high unemployment.

The Advisory Commission will be purely advisory. Members of this House have shown themselves resolute in their determination to consider the various matters concerning Northern Ireland which have been brought before the House, and, naturally, that process will continue. I at once give the reassurance that the Government are determined that the rule of law will be systematically and impartially applied to everyone throughout Northern Ireland.

Mr. Orme

Is it not the case that the women from Bogside and Creggan who came to see the right hon. Gentleman, while saying that they would not be prepared to hand over anyone to the security forces, were nevertheless operating independently and were truly representative of those areas? Does not this give the lie to the allegation that these areas are dominated and terrified by either the Provisional IRA or the Official IRA? The fact that these women came to see the right hon. Gentleman openly and publicly is an expression of the support they are giving, tacitly or otherwise, to the measures that the Government have taken following the introduction of direct rule. Whilst we must not build too much hope on the action which these women have taken, does it not show an expression for peace amongst the minority and, therefore, that if the right hon. Gentleman were in a position to end internment, that action would see the end of the power of both the Provisional IRA and the Official IRA in these areas?

Mr. Whitelaw

I must applaud the courage and determination of the women who came to see me. I equally applaud the courage of various other people in these areas, and perhaps in particular I might mention Father O'Neill, who has made a number of very helpful speeches and has given a lead in this matter. There are others concerned as well. I remain, naturally. in all these matters extremely cautious and would not wish to say anything at this stage one way or the other. It would be better for me simply to say that cautiously I welcome what has happened.

Mr. Model

Does my right hon. Friend recall that one of the reasons for internment was that the normal course of civil law was inhibited by intimidation? Will he bear this in mind in phasing out internment?

Mr. Whitelaw

I certainly bear that in mind. I am glad to say that, as my hon. Friend will have noticed, there have in recent times been some cases before the courts in which, where considered proper, some firm sentences have been imposed on those found guilty. That is also an important aspect.

Mr. Kilfedder

I associate myself with my right hon. Friend's appeal for continuing restraint in Northern Ireland. Does he realise that great ill-will is built up between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland by deliberate and wild allegations made by supporters of the IRA? Does he also realise that a number of wanted men are in the Republic and that sometimes they have crossed back into Northern Ireland? Does he realise also that a great number of terrorists are coming from the Republic back to Northern Ireland? What has he done to bring this situation to the notice of Mr. Lynch? Can he tell us what Mr. Lynch has done since direct rule was imposed?

Mr. Whitelaw

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's plea for restraint, which I hope will be echoed throughout all sections of the community in Northern Ireland. In many different ways, it is extremely important. I note what my hon. Friend says about terrorists coming back from the Republic. I have certainly noticed various expressions which Mr. Lynch has made recently, and I hope that stern action will be taken in the Republic, which I am sure would be of great help to the situation in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Peter Archer

While recognising that the Secretary of State is encouraging all sections of the community in Northern Ireland to assert their rights lawfully, may I ask him whether he will confirm that the Government have begun consultations with a view to the extension of the legal aid scheme to Northern Ireland? Is he in a position to say when he can make a statement about it?

Mr. Whitelaw

I am not in such a position at the moment, but I will look into what the hon. and learned Gentleman has said.

Mr. Selwyn Gummer

Just as we should not panic in circumstances when disastrous activities take place, so we should not take too strongly individual cases which are much happier and point to a better future. Does not my right hon. Friend agree that it is part of his responsibility to see that the Press is kept fully informed so that we do not have this swing whereby on one day there is deep gloom and on the next over-euphoria? This is a long job, and my right hon. Friend needs support throughout the whole period.

Mr. Whitelaw

I hope that I have shown cautious determination to go in the same direction undeterred from one day to the next. I have many responsibilities, but one of them is not for what the Press writes. That is the affair of the Press, and I recognise the total right of journalists to put whatever construction they wish on various actions which take place. But it is my job to proceed undeterred.