HC Deb 10 June 1974 vol 874 cc1223-30

Mr. Prior (by Private Notice)asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement on the IRA demonstrations in London during the last few days.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Roy Jenkins)

In the Isle of Wight and in London on 7th and 8th June a number of supporters of the IRA accompanied the funeral procession of Michael Gaughan. Some of those who took part in this procession and a number of people who took part in a demonstration in London yesterday wore black berets, dark glasses and other dark clothing. I understand from the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis that reports are being submitted to the Director of Public Prosecutions at the earliest possible moment for consideration of prosecutions under Section 1 of the Public Order Act 1936.

Occasions of this kind present great difficulties for the police. Their primary duty is to prevent public disorder, and it is a matter of difficult judgment to know what is the best way to prevent a provocative procession from turning into a riot. In fact, the demonstrations of the past few days—substantial though is the public reaction to and repugnance for them, feelings which I strongly share —have not resulted in disorder.

It would not be proper for me to comment further on the possibility of prosecutions. That is not a matter for me. But I think it right to say that in my view what took place is deeply and rightly resented by the overwhelming majority of British opinion. As a propaganda exercise it was wholly counterproductive. Part of the object was no doubt to intimidate. That, I believe, will not succeed either. I will consider urgently with the Commissioner of Police and other authorities whether any strengthening of law or procedure is necessary. The issues are not wholly straightforward, but I can assure the House and the country that whatever measures are necessary to frustrate any sustained campaign of paramilitary demonstrations, will be taken.

Mr. Prior

Is the Home Secretary aware that the whole House will applaud the remarks that he has just made in his statement? Is he aware, further, of the indignation and anger that this episode has caused and that the fact that a military-style funeral should have been organised for a convicted criminal in the streets of our capital city is an affront to the nation, especially to the families of those soldiers and civilians who have lost their lives upholding freedom in Northern Ireland? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware also that he will have the full support of the House in any measures that he feels it necessary to bring forward?

Can the right hon. Gentleman answer one question? What efforts did he make, and what efforts could he have made, to have the body sent direct to Ireland instead of having it paraded through the streets of London? Will he also comment on the fact that had the facts been reported to the Attorney-General consideration would have been given to the use of his powers under Section 1(2) of the Public Order Act 1936?

Mr. Jenkins

Dealing with the right hon. Gentleman's question about whether the body could have been flown direct to Ireland, I had no legal control over the body once it passed from the possession of the coroner. The Home Office could not have conveyed the body to the place of burial except with the agreement of the relations. It was not within my power to take the action which the right hon. Gentleman has, understandably, suggested.

As for the right hon. Gentleman's second question, I have no doubt that my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General will consider the matter.

Mr. Grimond

Is the Home Secretary aware that his condemnation of this deplorable incident will be warmly welcomed throughout the country, as will his assurance that if further measures are needed he will introduce them? Will he assure the House that no bargains will be struck about the return of convicted criminals from this country to other countries through the use of blackmail?

Mr. Jenkins

No deals were made. This is a different matter; but I issued a statement more than a week ago which commanded a fair amount of support and agreement. In no way do I contradict that statement.

Mr. Jay

Does not the 1936 legislation to which my right hon. Friend has referred clearly prohibit the wearing of uniforms by private armies in this country?

Mr. Jenkins

Yes, it does prohibit it. But there is a question as to what constitutes a uniform. I agree that the common sense of the matter seems to be that the three factors which I described in my a statement constitute a uniform. However, there was a case in 1972 when the police took names and submitted them to the Director of Public Prosecutions and proceedings were not taken. I am not attempting to judge whether that was right or wrong, but the police were bound to have that in their minds, along with other considerations, in deciding whether to arrest as opposed to taking names.

Mr. Deedes

On the point about intimidation, and further to the question asked by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond), can the Home Secretary give a firm assurance that the termination of the Price sisters' hunger strike carries no implications for the other 30 or so prisoners in this country who wish to return to Ireland?

Mr. Jenkins

This is wholly wide of the question that I am answering. If the right hon. Gentleman wishes to put down a question on this matter, I assure him that I shall be very glad to answer it.

Mr. Flannery

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is similarly an affront to the dignity of the British people to see massive paramilitary forces demonstrating as they did recently in Northern Ireland and similar massive demonstrations of Orangemen with fife and drum bands and regalia in the streets of Britain such as we saw over the past weekend?

Mr. Jenkins

I deplore paramilitary demonstrations of any sort.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Does the Home Secretary agree that, although any individual who wishes is entitled to the private ministrations of the clergy, the use of the church for the occasion of a public political demonstration by the enemies of the United Kingdom falls into quite a different category? On behalf of the Government and of this House, will the right hon. Genetleman express the hope to the Westminster archdiocesan authori- ties that this kind of incident is never allowed to happen again?

Mr. Jenkins

I take great note of what the hon. Gentleman has said, and so no doubt will the authorities of the Church to which he belongs.

Mr. George Cunningham

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that neither he nor the Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis was asked for or gave consent under Section 1(1) of the Public Order Act 1936 to the wearing of these uniforms, and does my right hon. Friend agree that it is right to attach great importance to this first provocative action by the IRA in London, because the Public Order Act does not apply to Northern Ireland where these uniforms have been worn frequently in the past? Does my right hon. Friend agree also that, provided that the Attorney-General is satisfied that the purpose was a political one, it would be right for prosecutions to take place so that the law is not flouted with impunity?

Mr. Jenkins

There is no question of any consent under the Public Order Act 1936 being sought or given. Regarding the point about my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General, he will no doubt take note of that. But it would be inappropriate for me to comment because, as a prosecuting authority, he is not in an exactly similar position to a colleague, a position in which one can speak for the Government as a whole. My right hon. and learned Friend has a judicial function and not a political function in this respect.

Mrs. Knight

Will the Home Secretary confirm that the wording of Section 1 of the Public Order Act 1936 makes it clear that it is an offence for any person to wear in any public place or at any public meeting a uniform signifying his association with any political organisation or with the promotion of a political object? If that is so, whatever view might be taken of the clothes worn by the marchers at the demonstration on Saturday, surely there can be no doubt that they were signifying their allegiance to a political association. If that is so, will the right hon. Gentleman note that, possibly due to the impunity with which the marchers operated on Saturday, a much bigger march took place yesterday at which money was collected for the IRA? Will [MRS. KNIGHT.] the Home Secretary now consider the possibility of making the IRA an illegal organisation?

Mr. Jenkins

On the first point, the hon. Lady gives an interpretation of Section 1 of the Public Order Act 1936, which she has clearly carefully read. I was not sure, however, whether she listened equally carefully to the exchange which took place between myself and one of my hon. Friends, because I think that I covered the point made by the hon. Lady in that exchange almost precisely and almost exactly. There was also the difficulty relating to the decision taken in 1972, when the police considered prosecution, by the then Attorney-General and the then Director of Public Prosecutions. However, these are all difficult matters of judgment for anyone concerned.

Concerning the banning of the IRA, the position of the present Government, as of their predecessors, has always been that they would consider this matter on the basis of whether it would assist in the preservation of public order. The view of the previous Government was that it would not so assist. That, I believe, continues to be the view of the police. The Commissioner of Police is an extremely experienced and balanced officer in these and in all matters. I think that view has been generally supported hitherto. There is not great advantage in banning an organisation. They reappear under a multiplicity of different names. Nor does what occurred in the Republic of Ireland yesterday, where the funeral was completed and where the IRA is banned, suggest that banning the IRA would automatically prevent demonstrations of this sort. I assure the hon. Lady that nothing that I have said in any way underestimates—I think that it is clear to the House—the seriousness which I attach to the whole issue.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

How can we criticise what happens in the Republic of Ireland when events such as those we have seen in London have taken place? Is it not entirely unfair to the Dublin authorities, who are trying to deal with organisations which are illegal there, to say blithely that it is likely that we shall not propose to make them illegal in England? Is it not vital to the continuation of good relations, which we all want to see, between British and Irish people living in this land, and for relations between the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic, that we should now see that those who march in political uniforms are brought to book, whatever their opinions, and that we should give fresh consideration to the banning of the IRA? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that I still disagree with the previous Government and with the present Government and with the Commissioner of Police on this matter?

Mr. Jenkins

I take note of that, but I should have thought that it was apparent, even to the hon. Gentleman, that I was not saying anything blithely. Nor was I endeavouring to apportion any blame to the Government of the Republic of Ireland. Of course we want the closest relations with them in these difficult circumstances. But we still have to consider whether a course of action proposed would assist the ends we have in view. I will consider any action, but I shall not be rushed into it by the hon. Gentleman telling me that it is his view, against a great balance of other judgment.

Mr. Thorne

Is the Secretary of State aware that another interpretation of the events to which he has referred is possible, that many may consider the deceased to have been a political prisoner and that the funeral to which the Secretary of State has referred was organised by the deceased's political friends? Does he condemn that?

Mr. Jenkins

To be honest, I found my hon. Friend's question a little difficult to follow and to understand. I certainly condemn what took place on Saturday and Sunday.

Mr. Heath

The Home Secretary's outright condemnation of these events commends itself to the whole House and will commend itself very much to the whole country. On the question of the banning of the IRA, the Home Secretary is right. This matter has constantly been considered by successive administrations. For a variety of reasons—some of which are not usually discussed in public—it has been considered in the public interest that this should not occur. My hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Biggs-Davison) knows that this was the view of the previous administration.

I put one point to the Home Secretary. He said that the responsibility of the police is mainly for the preservation of law and order or to prevent public disorder. But surely the responsibility of the police is also to enforce the law, and Section 1(1) of the Public Order Act 1936 is quite clear about the law. I think that what the country wants is an assurance that these events will not be allowed to recur. The right hon. Gentleman said that the marchers did not succeed in their objective of causing public disorder. That is true. But a further objective must have been to affront the British people, and in that they have succeeded. What the public want to know is that clear action will be taken to prevent any such recurrence of these events.

Mr. Jenkins

I agree fully with what the right hon. Gentleman says about the affront. I think that British opinion has been deeply affronted and is right to be deeply affronted. It is the duty of the police to enforce the law as well as to prevent public disorder. Balances sometimes have to be struck in this respect. I have already referred to the 1972 position concerning this matter. But I know that the Commissioner of Police and other chief police officers have this matter very much in mind.

In reply to the last general part of the right hon. Gentleman's question, I reiterate what I said at the end of my statement—that whatever measures are necessary to frustrate any sustained campaign of paramilitary demonstrations will be taken.