HC Deb 21 June 1973 vol 858 cc899-911

The Chief Executive Member shall advise the Secretary of State at all times on the means necessary to maintain public order in Northern Ireland.—[Captain Orr.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

4.51 p.m.

Captain L. P. S. Orr (Down, South)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

I am certain that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Committee are as tired of the sound of my voice as I am. However, I hope that it will be conceded, as we continue the Committee stage, that at least my hon. Friends and I have not sought unduly to delay the proceedings or, indeed, to be fractious in what we have sought to do. The opportunities for lengthy delay in this long and complicated Bill are very many indeed. For example, we could have spent half a day discussing the simple proposition that the Parliament of Northern Ireland should disappear. We could have had a long, historic discussion on that matter had we chosen to do so. Indeed, it would have been interesting to hear the views of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) and some of my hon. Friends replying to him.

I freely acknowledge that the speed at which we have been able to move has also been due to the co-operation of my right hon. Friend, who has met us, at least partially, on a number of points.

That brings me immediately to the clause, upon which I hope he will be able to meet us. The clause seeks to ensure that, pending the transfer of responsibility for internal security, as soon as an Executive can be formed—that presupposes the working of the Government's scheme—the Chief Executive shall have a considerable say in the maintenance of public order in Ulster. The effect would be that the Assembly could discuss both internal security and public order. It does not mean that the power should be transferred straight away and it does not bind the Secretary of State in any way.

I think that the proposition is fairly simple. At first sight, I cannot see any objection to it. In the meantime I should like to hear my right hon. Friend's comments.

Mr. John Biggs-Davison (Chigwell)

The threat to public order is not merely or even primarily confined to Northern Ireland. There is no border to terrorism and subversion. The new Government in Dublin are acutely aware of this fact. The architects of a European Cuba in Northern Ireland are up against one of the best armies, if not the best army, in the world, whereas the Eire forces are not large.

When we discussed Clause 12 my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said something that was very important. The difficulty is that we have not got HANSARD to see what he said. However, I understood him to say that security was a matter that it would be appropriate for Northern Ireland personalities to discuss with their opposite numbers in the Republic of Ireland, whether under Clause 12 or otherwise. If my understanding is correct, surely it means that we must envisage as temporary the inclusion in the list of excluded matters the whole question of the policing of Northern Ireland and that the provincial authorities there will again take a hand in the keeping of law and order.

Before and since the Darlington Conference the control of security and who is to be responsible for its different aspects has been a bone of contention. It has been a sensitive matter, as the phrase goes, in Northern Ireland for many years, but more particlularly since the disarmament and, I suggest, demoralisation of the Royal Ulster Constabulary by the late administration—I am glad to say that the morale of that body today stands high—and the disbandment, without adequate replacement, of the Ulster Special Constabulary.

If one refers to that force and says that something is missing in the security arrangements of Northern Ireland, one is inclined to excite an incantation about bringing back the "B" Specials, who are a bogy in the minds of some people. I think they were defective in that they were largely a Protestant rather than a people's force. They were not sufficiently widely based in the community. However, it is historically untrue to say, as is often said, that no Roman Catholic ever served in the "B" Specials. When I asserted this in the Irish Times I was attacked and told that I was talking nonsense. It was only after that correspendence in the Irish Times that in some historical researches I came across a message from Sir James Craig, a former Prime Minister of Northern Ireland thanking the "B" Specials for their services and paying special attention in his thanks to the Roman Catholics who had served in the Ulster Special Constabulary.

The policing of Northern Ireland, as of any other part of the United Kingdom, is for policemen rather than for soldiers. It is the desire of Her Majesty's Government and of this House that our troops should not be employed in the police rôle for a day longer than is necessary. Policing is best done by local men locally embodied and possessed of local knowledge, local contacts and local information. Though the "B" Specials are bogymen for some people, for others they are almost magicians—so omniscient that no malefactor or potential disturber of the Queen's peace could slip through their net. I think that both assertions are exaggerated. In some counties they were more effective than in others; some commandants were better than others. I believe, however, that it is by adding to the reserves of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the police reserves in which women are now included and are doing good service, that we may find an opportunity of getting our troops in Northern Ireland off the streets and back to a garrison rôle and strength.

5.0 p.m.

I look forward to the time when the House of Commons will not be saddled with the oversight of the policing of Northern Ireland in any detailed sense. It is, therefore, appropriate that when we have an Assembly and an Executive in Northern Ireland, the Chief Executive Member, on behalf of the Executive and responsible to the Assembly, should be able to put forward views to the Secretary of State and to all responsible on matters of public order in the province.

Meanwhile, I take it that nothing in the Bill, when enacted, will preclude the discussion of security in all its domestic aspects by the Assembly.

Mr. Stanley R. McMaster (Belfast, East)

I support what has been said by my hon. Friends in requesting that the Chief Executive Member should advise the Secretary of State. As I understand it, my right hon. Friend intends, as soon as possible—as soon as the present emergency is over—not only that the Army should be withdrawn from its present duties in Northern Ireland but that complete control of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, our police in Northern Ireland, should be restored to the Executive in Northern Ireland. I hope I am correct in that assumption and that my right hon. Friend will be able to say so clearly to the Committee.

Therefore, in order to pave the way for the restoration of the control of our police to the Northern Ireland Assembly, it might be possible for my right hon. Friend to accept the clause.

In the troubles that we have been facing in Northern Ireland over the past three years—I have said three years, but it is now four or five years since the troubles commenced—one of the first things done by the subversive movement, which has led to the disturbance and the security troubles, was to discredit our police force and, in so doing, to undermine the Government. It succeeded very largely in discrediting the police partly due to the successes of its propaganda campaign in not only Northern Ireland but Britain and elsewhere in the world. The Press, particularly camera crews, which came into the riot areas in 1969 and seemed always to photograph members of the police force at a disadvantage, did much to disturb and disrupt the morale of the RUC. The work of Sir Arthur Young and the Hunt Committee appears in retrospect, in the circumstances which prevail in Northern Ireland today, to have been very misguided.

It is, therefore, more important than can be stated in the debate that the morale of the police in Northern Ireland and the morale of the security forces should be restored. I want to press my right hon. Friend on that matter. I have seen the Army at work in my constituency. I agree with all that has been said about the Army and the job that it is doing. The Army deserves the gratitude of everyone in Northern Ireland and of all hon. Members.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Chigwell (Mr. Biggs-Davison) said, the Army cannot be expected to do a police job. It is patrolling in many areas of Northern Ireland. It is patrolling in parts of my constituency. It is helping to keep law and order. But patrolling is not performing a proper police function. For example, soldiers are not stationed in a particular area long enough to get to know individuals who live in that area in the way that the ordinary police patrol gets to know them. When there are disturbances, it is not easy for the Army to identify the likely culprits or to carry out the intelligence work which an ordinary police force does.

Therefore, advice on security matters is much better when given by Northern Ireland people, by members of the Executive in Northern Ireland, when elected, and by our police, and security is much more effectively controlled by them than by some remote authority at Westminster. I realise that the present circumstances make it impossible immediately to restore control of the police and the Army to the Executive which is about to be elected, but an important intermediate step would be to accept the idea behind the clause and to consult at all times in matters concerning public order with the chief Executive member.

"Consult" is perhaps putting it at too low a level. Once the Executive has been established in Northern Ireland, any security committee that is set up should have as its chairman the chief Executive member. He is the person there who is principally responsible for law and order, which is the prime function of any Government. This should be recognised.

If it is the Government's intention to set up an effective administration in Northern Ireland, that is the one test of whether that Administration is to be a mere facade or is to have real power and authority. If what has been said in the debate about the importance of establishing, in due course, an effective Government in Northern Ireland is correct, the acceptance of the scheme suggested by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Down, South (Captain Orr) and by myself and some of my hon. Friends would be a token of the sincerity of Her Majesty's Government, a token which in present circumstances would be very welcome.

Certain forces at work in Northern Ireland are seeking to undermine the efforts of the Government to establish an Assembly in Northern Ireland, a form of local parliament devolved to Northern Ireland with an effective Executive in control of it. If my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State gives the assurance for which we have asked, it will go a very long way to re-establish confidence not only within the police force, important as that is, but in Northern Ireland as a whole among the electorate. The clause could achieve more than any other amendment, and so I urge my right hon. Friend to consider it favourably.

Mr. Stratton Mills (Belfast, North)

It is quite unreal in the present situation for anyone to argue that security should, as before, be brought back to a local Assembly, and I was glad that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Down, South (Captain Orr), who is in these matters a realist, did not make that request. What I should like to consider is the argument that there might be a case for saying that the Assembly itself, while having no power in the matter, might be able to discuss security.

This is a delicately balanced argument. On the one hand it could be said that this would bring into the Assembly all kinds of additional tensions which could upset the delicate balance. On the other hand, it could be said that the discussion of security matters would be a useful safety valve by means of which the elected representatives who are close to the situation on the ground could put their points of view directly. But if there is no one with any confidence to reply to such debates, this could create new tensions and unrests, and probably at the end of the day would not be worth the candle.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

But if the purpose of the clause were met, the chief Executive member might be able to reply to such debates.

Mr. Mills

I think not. He would have no powers, but would merely act as a transmitter of messages. To have no power of say-so is an impossible situation for any politician.

What I believe lies behind the clause is the alternative, which relates to the position of the Executive over security. The structure set out in the Bill is such that the Executive does not have this power; that remains with this House. However, on the subject of law and order, paragraph 69 of the White Paper stated: First, the Northern Ireland Executive will be invited to act as an advisory committee to the Secretary of State in relation to those responsibilities reserved to him. He will therefore have an opportunity to discuss matters of general public concern and interest with the elected leaders of the Northern Ireland community, and to take their views fully into account.

Captain Orr

That is not in the Bill.

Mr. Mills

My hon. and gallant Friend is right. I am simply trying to underline those words and to hear from my right hon. Friend what form of advisory committee he has in mind. Is it intended to be informal or will it meet regularly? Does he intend to bring its members as much into his confidence as he can—that would seem sensible—and to try to give them a feeling that they have direct access to him on all these important matters, about which the people of Northern Ireland are desperately concerned, so that the Executive will be a more direct and permanent filter to put these points to the Secretary of State than would be possible in this House on the rare occasions when we discuss these matters in detail? I should be grateful if my right hon. Friend would spell out his thinking in this respect.

Mr. James Molyneaux (Antrim, South)

I support the principle of a greater say for the Assembly in matters of security. Linked with that is the reinstatement of the Royal Ulster Constabulary as the peacekeeping and law enforcement instrument. As an ex-Service man I pay unreserved tribute to the Army—all ranks and all branches. The Secretary of State knows that I have always taken a pro-Army attitude in this House, supporting them against the same kind of destructive criticism as used to be directed against the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Ulster Special Constabulary. Much of the Army's present difficulty in Northern Ireland arises from the fact that an army is not the proper instrument for law and order enforcement.

5.15 p.m.

May I give a personal example of what I mean? I was recently stopped by a patrol within a short distance of my own gate. They gave my car a very thorough search. I did not object to that—I was merely 25 minutes late for a very important engagement—but I noticed that while I was immobilised no fewer than 11 cars passing the same spot were not stopped and searched. The police would never have made that mistake. They might have thought that I was a doubtful individual in some respects, but they would have known that I would not be foolhardy enough to have 100 lbs. of gelignite in my possession within 100 yards of Aldergrove Airport. They would have avoided such a waste of effort and time.

I am making no personal complaint; I am simply illustrating the difficulties and the waste of manpower involved in this kind of operation when people do not know the territory and those concerned.

This Parliament is naturally aware of the unthinking but understandable call for withdrawal of the troops from Northern Ireland. For one reason or another, the time may come when there will have to be a phase-out of the Army. The clause would set that long-term process in motion. Therefore, I hope the Committee will be realistic and will consider it favourably.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. William Whitelaw)

Before coming to the point in the clause, it would perhaps be appropriate, following what has been said by my hon. Friends the Members for Chigwell (Mr. Biggs-Davison) and Belfast, East (Mr. McMaster), if I set out the background to it and restated some of the principles that underlie the present position.

As has been accepted by all speakers in this debate and as is widely accepted on all sides, so long as the present emergency continues and an Army of the present size has to be deployed in Northern Ireland, overall control of security must remain in this House, which, of course, is responsible for our troops. I should, however, make one point clear to my hon. Friend: security and law and order has been made a reserved matter, not an excepted matter. If it had been an excepted matter, that would have meant that it could never at any time be transferred hack to Northern Ireland.

The reason is simple. It is that if the emergency were ended and it were then possible to withdraw the Army to the normal garrison size which at one time it held there and not to use it in a police rôle at all there would be substantial advantages in transferring law and order back to Northern Ireland. It has always been envisaged that in those circumstances that possibility would have to be very much in the minds of the Government and the House.

There can be no absolute commitment, because no one can tell when the emergency will end and that happy state of affairs from which everyone would benefit, will arise. But the possibility is there and it is important to stress it.

Against that background, we come to the present position. It is true that the Army is not trained for police duties. It is true, too, that policemen are much better at doing a police job than the Army is. The tragedy is that since 1969 it has been inevitable, in the circumstances, that the Army has had to be used for these duties. We do not need to go over the history of the matter or to consider why that is so. It is a fact that that has had to be done. There can be no doubt that it must be the main object of policy to build up the police, because upon that, upon the ending of the emergency, and upon the removal of violence depends the reduction of the Army and the building up of the police.

It is with that intention, and against the background that I have described, that I come to the clause. My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Stratton Mills) read the relevant passage in the White Paper about the Northern Ireland Executive being invited to act as an advisory committee to the Secretary of State in relation to the security responsibility reserved to him. I confirm that commitment in the White Paper. That is the intention of the Government.

The intention is that meetings of a formal nature should be undertaken regularly. Consistent with the responsibility for security matters, it would obviously be right for the Secretary of State to take the Executive into his confidence as much as he could. I think that that answers the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, North about such an advisory committee.

In addition, we said in the White Paper that the police authority should be reconstituted so as to introduce into it an element drawn from elected representatives to the Assembly. As we argued last night, provision is made for that in Clause 48(1)(c).

It was also said in the White Paper—and we believe this to be right—that local committees of the new district councils should have advisory responsibility in relation to the policing of their districts so that they would be involved in what was being done. We are committed to the involvement in these matters at all levels of people in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Stratton Mills

Does my right hon. Friend envisage the Chief Constable and the GOC being members of the advisory committee?

Mr. Whitelaw

I am coming on to deal with the clause in greater detail. I should not wish to formalise either this committee or the consultations, because there is a risk in doing so in an Act of Parliament. Consistent with having the Executive acting as an advisory committee, it would be essential for the Secretary of State to be in close contact with it on these matters. I give the absolute commitment that that will be my intention and desire.

Despite the absolute intention to do what the clause suggests, I put it to the Committee that to write such a provision into the Bill could lead to certain difficulties and dangers, and that that would apply as much to writing in the commitment in the White Paper as to setting out the position of the Executive. There is no need for a statutory provision to that effect. The commitment has been clearly stated, and it is not necessary for it to be in the Bill.

If this provision were in the Bill despite its not being necessary, there would be a danger of its leading to trouble in the present situation. Perhaps I might give the Committee an example of the kind of situation in which I have frequently found myself during the last year. Instant decisions frequently have to be taken. The only person who can take the decision is the person with overall responsibility. He is the person who, even though he might—as I often did—wish to consult his Cabinet colleagues, has to take the decision himself because of the nature of the problem. If it were written into the Bill that advice had to be sought on all matters at all times, it could on occasion be argued that the Secretary of State had not fulfilled his statutory duty. It could be asked whether he had taken the advice of the Executive when he would not have had time to do so. The fact that in those circumstances he had not sought advice would put both him and the Executive in a difficult situation, because it would have to be admitted that there had not been any consultation between them. It could, therefore, be argued that they were in breach of their statutory responsibilities, and that could lead to misunderstanding and some friction.

That view applies also to the question of having the Executive as an advisory committee and who comes to it. If we formalise the procedure and write it into the Bill, people who wish to be difficult will be able to raise questions about whether there has been any breach of a statutory obligation.

Co-operation between the new Northern Ireland Executive and the Secretary of State is of the greatest importance, and I re-state the commitments in the White Paper because I think that they are of the greatest value, but, for the reasons that I have stated, I hope that my hon. Friends will not press me to write this provision into the Bill because by doing so, and by formalising these procedures, we should in the end frustrate the development of co-operation which we are all seeking to foster and which my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East emphasised.

The commitment set out in the White Paper relating to the Executive as an advisory committee stands. The same applies to the police authority. I hope to have the closest possible relationship with the Executive on all security matters, but it would be a mistake to put this provision into statutory form and thereby create areas of friction which it would be better to avoid.

I hope that I have dealt with the principal points of the clause. I hope, too, that I shall not be pressed to write this provision into the Bill and that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Down, South (Captain Orr) will feel able to withdraw it.

Captain Orr

Once again my right hon. Friend has been exceedingly helpful to the Committee. One of the things that troubled us when comparing the Bill with the White Paper was that there appeared to be no obligation in the Bill for consultations with any elected representatives. My right hon. Friend has confirmed that he intends to carry out what is laid down in the White Paper, and in doing so he has convinced me of the difficulties that would arise if these provisions were written into the Bill. I found it difficult to draft a suitable form of words on the subject, and the best that I was able to do is shown in the clause.

It might be useful to add to what some of my hon. Friends have said about the Army. This might be a useful occasion on which to underline the fact that, although we envisage the Army's eventually being withdrawn to its garrison strength and position, and policing eventually going back to Northern Ireland control, nobody ought to be in any doubt that the vast majority of people in Ulster are immensely proud of the Army and are determined to see that it is sustained and supported.

People in Ulster have immense regard for the acts of heroism that are performed daily by members of the Army. One has only to think of Major Kearon and his hair-raising drive into the River Foyle yesterday to realise how much we owe to men of that calibre. We should put on the record our immense admiration for the Army and our detestation—and we should not put it weaker than that—of those who seek to make its task more difficult and of those of whatever section of the community who resist the Armed Forces of the Crown.

I am much obliged to my right hon. Friend for his attitude on this and for confirming that until a happier time comes about that we can envisage, starting almost immediately after the Executive and the Assembly have been formed, the consultation predicted in the White Paper will be carried out. Accordingly, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the clause.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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