HC Deb 23 May 1974 vol 874 cc611-22
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Merlyn Rees)

I will, with permission, make a statement. I must express regret for its length, but it deals with matters arising from, or connected with, the Sunningdale Agreement, which, as the House will know, left a number of matters for later resolution. I am sure that I should inform the House fully of the developing situation regarding the Council of Ireland, policing, detention and the report of the Law Enforcement Commission.

The House will be aware that the Northern Ireland Executive issued last night a statement on the basis upon which it is prepared to proceed in relation to a Council of Ireland. The proposals that it put forward have emerged from lengthy discussions which have taken place over a period of many weeks within the Northern Ireland Administration. I am making arrangements to have this statement placed in the Library of the House.

I have, on behalf of Her Majesty's Government, welcomed this statement which provides a realistic and sensible basis on which the North and South of Ireland can work together. The proposals now put forward carefully protect the interests of both communities and are consistent with the overriding requirement in the Constitution Act that there can be no change in the status of Northern Ireland without the consent of the majority of the people in Northern Ireland. It is good sense that there should be institutions in Ireland as a whole so that the people there work together in co-operation with one another in the interest of all.

The Sunningdale Agreement also provided for a limited, and carefully defined, rôle for a Council of Ministers in relation to policing. In particular, Her Majesty's Government undertook that appointments to the Northern Ireland police authority would be made after consultation with the Northern Ireland Executive, which would consult the Council of Ministers. I propose to lay before the House immediately after the recess an order reconstituting the police authority. In addition, steps have been taken to set up an all-party committee from the Assembly to examine how best to introduce effective policing throughout Northern Ireland with particular reference to the need to achieve public identification with the police. That committee will meet shortly.

At Sunningdale, Her Majesty's Government gave a firm commitment to bring detention to an end in Northern Ireland for all sections of the community as soon as the security situation permits. That remains Her Majesty's Government's policy and, alongside this urgent thought is being given to the best way in which persons released from detention can be helped to re-establish themselves in their local communities.

The problem of fugitive offenders was left unresolved at Sunningdale and, following the conference, Her Majesty's Government and the Irish Government jointly set up a commission to advise them on the most effective means, from a legal point of view, of bringing to justice fugitive political offenders in Ireland. The commission completed its work and presented its report to both Governments on 25th April. I have today laid the report before the House, and copies are available in the Vote Office.

I should like, first of all, to place on record my gratitude, and the gratitude of the House, to the members of the commission for the care, skill and speed with which they performed their complex task.

Her Majesty's Government and the Irish Government reaffirm the view expressed by all parties at Sunningdale that persons committing crimes of violence, however motivated, in any part of Ireland should be brought to trial irrespective of the part of Ireland in which they are located. Agreement has been reached by both Governments on the action to be taken on the commission's report and a statement in similar terms is also being made to the Daily this afternoon by the Irish Minister for Justice.

The commission considered, but rejected, the establishment of mixed courts comprising judges from Northern Ireland and the Republic and also, as not offering a practicable immediate solution, the setting up of an all-Ireland court. The commission agreed that it would be legally feasible to confer power on the courts in both parts of Ireland so that the courts in each part would be able to try certain specified crimes wherever in Ireland they were committed. All the members recommended this as a method which could be introduced quickly. The United Kingdom members made it clear that they would have preferred the extradition solution, but the members from the Republic could not advise that an agreement or legislation purporting to extradite fugitive political offenders would be valid under the Irish Constitution.

Her Majesty's Government and the Irish Government have accepted the agreed recommendation contained in the report and, whilst retaining existing extradition arrangements, will introduce reciprocal legislation so that the courts in each part of Ireland will have jurisdiction to try under their own domestic law certain offences wherever committed in Ireland. It is a matter of regret to Her Majesty's Government that the commission disagreed about the legality of amending the Irish extradition law, but it is clear from the report that all the members of the commission are confident that the extension of jurisdiction is not open to any valid objection in law.

The effect of this proposed legislation will be that in future those suspected of having committed certain specified terrorist offences in Northern Ireland but who have escaped to the Republic can be tried in the Republic, and those similarly suspected of such crimes in the Republic who have escaped to the North can be tried in Northern Ireland. The existence of the legislation should in itself deter those who commit such crimes in one part of Ireland from seeking refuge in the other part. It will remain open to both Governments to continue to seek extradition whenever they consider it appropriate as a means of dealing with fugitive offenders and, where extradition is sought but not achieved and sufficient evidence is available, prosecution will be undertaken by the authorities of the part of Ireland in which the alleged offender is.

The two Governments have agreed that there will be the closest co-operation between the police forces in the investigation of offences.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General and the Irish Attorney-General have agreed that there will need to be the closest co-operation between the two Attorneys-General and their staff in conducting prosecutions based primarily or wholly on evidence obtained in the other jurisdiction and that this presents no difficulties which cannot and will not be overcome.

The two Governments have also agreed to accept the proposals in the report that special security arrangements should be made to encourage witnesses to travel into the other jurisdiction to give evidence, and to include in their respective legislation provisions to enable, in cases where witnesses are unwilling to travel, evidence to be taken on commission in the presence of the court, and of the accused if he wishes, in the way in which the commission recommended.

I am confident that the agreement 1 have announced today will be an important contribution towards bringing to trial those responsible for terrorism in Ireland. Equally important, however, is the prevention of acts of terrorism and the apprehension of those who are responsible. Both Governments believe that there is scope for improving border security to deter terrorists from exploiting the border and to increase the prospects of catching those who do, and I shall very shortly be meeting Mr. Coeney, the Irish Minister for Justice, to discuss what can be done to improve further the existing co-operation between the security forces on both sides of the border.

The tragic strike, which affects the life and welfare of every ordinary man and woman in Northern Ireland, must be in the forefront of all our minds. But this must not deter us from proceeding with measures which offer the best hope for the future of Northern Ireland and to which I have referred in the statement.

Mr. Pym

The House will be grateful to the Secretary of State for the information that he has given to us, but in some ways I regret the length of statement because it touches on a range of complex and important matters for Northern Ireland which, frankly, it is impossible to deal with by question and answer. Indeed, I do not think that I could possibly do justice to all of them in what I am about to say. Therefore, I shall restrict myself to three main matters.

First, the Council of Ireland, now that the parties in the Executive have agreed about the handling of the Council of Ireland, does the right hon. Gentleman accept that he and his colleagues, every member of the Executive and all members of the Assembly have a tremendous job in communicating the realities and truth about the Council of Ireland to the people of Northern Ireland? There are, and always were, cast iron safeguards built into the Council of Ireland, but we know that doubts were cast upon those safeguards by some people.

It seems that the aspects to which many people in Northern Ireland took objection have now been postponed until after the Assembly elections. Therefore, I should have thought that this was a crucially important opportunity for the right hon. Gentleman and the Executive to mount a major campaign to ensure that there was no further misunderstanding about what was intended, what was implied, and what was to happen.

Secondly, on the Law Enforcement Commission, is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied that the process that he has agreed to will be quick enough in dealing with fugitive offenders? Will he tell us something more about the security of witnesses, which I suspect will be a problem when crossing the border comes into it? Is it not a major disappointment that the members from the Republic should have advised that it is possible that a change in the extradition law might not be valid under the Irish constitution? Will he press the Republic of Ireland to have a further look at this point, because, as he will know, the people of Northern Ireland feel that a change here would be the most helpful contribution that could be made?

Finally, on the strike, the right hon. Gentleman yesterday gave a categoric and firm reassurance about the maintenance of essential services. We know that what has happened in the past 24 hours has resulted in a deterioration of the situation, and the House will wish to be reassured that the right hon. Gentleman will take whatever action is necessary.

I have no doubt that shortly after answering questions on the statement the right hon. Gentleman will be leaving for Northern Ireland again. I believe that here, too, a tremendous job of communication is involved between this Government and the Northern Ireland Executive and the people of Northern Ireland. There must be channels of communication so that everyone understands what is being done and what is happening and can feel reassured that the present critical situation will come to an end at the earliest possible moment.

Mr. Rees

The length of my statement, which was largely on the Law Enforcement Commission's Report, was necessary. A similar statement is being made in the Dail. There will be legislation after the recess, when we can put our minds to the question. The right hon. Gentleman illustrated, by the number of questions that he put to me, that if my statement had not been so long, the number of questions would have been greater. I wanted to make clear my view about the Law Enforcement Commission which is extremely important.

The Council of Ireland is a matter for the Executive and the Government in the South. Of course there is a public relations job to be done. It is extremely difficult in Northern Ireland at the moment, but it must be done.

There is no question of the Government of the South looking again at law enforcement. I went to the South to discuss extradition only recently. 1'he Government there made it clear that such was the nature of their constitution that, if they had introduced legislation, anyone who had taken a case to the courts almost certainly would have had an application for extradition turned down.

The right hon. Gentleman may rest assured that I shall take steps in connection with the strike and the maintenance of essential services. It is a matter of regret to me that certain Members of this House should attempt to set up a provisional Government in Northern Ireland by issuing their own ration books, and so on, and then come here and draw pay as democrats. That makes me a little sick.

Mr. Cledwyn Hughes

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, although there is general support for what he said, there is profound and increasing distress in this country at the developing catastrophe in Northern Ireland? There is a growing belief, rightly or wrongly, that people in Northern Ireland are committed to one extreme or the other and are not in favour of the moderate solution being put forward by Her Majesty's Government.

Is my right hon. Friend further aware that the strike by those who call themselves loyalists is bitterly resented by the overwhelming majority of people in this country? Finally, does my right hon. Friend agree that if there were a total physical and economic withdrawal from the Province, the consequences for all Ireland would be disastrous?

Mr. Rees

My right hon. Friend's last statement sums up the situation. Even from what one sees now, and knowing the number of guns that there are in the North, one knows that if that happened, there would be serious consequences.

Yesterday, I expressed my view of the word "loyalist". The elections of a year ago showed that there was a majority of moderates in Northern Ireland. My job is to deal with the security situation so that the moderates will be able to stand up and speak without being afraid of being dealt with by the bully boys and subjected to intimidation of the vilest sort. It is very difficult to be a moderate in Northern Ireland at present. Our job is to help those who are.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Will the Secretary of State name the Members of this House who have set up a provisional Government in Northern Ireland and issued ration books? If the right hon. Gentleman cannot name them, will he withdraw his accusations against hon. Members? I assure the right hon. Gentleman that no Member of this House has at any time made any such suggestion; nor have ration books been issued in the name of any provisional Government in Northern Ireland. Would it not be better for the right hon. Gentleman to get the facts before he uses the Dispatch Box in the way he has used it this afternoon?

May I ask a question about the essential services? Is it not a fact that on the radio today the chief medical officer of the Department of Health and Social' Services paid a tribute to the strikers, who have guaranteed essential supplies to hospitals and who have facilitated the hospitals in getting such supplies?

Can the right hon. Gentleman tell the House why the head of the Department of Health and Social Services—that is, Mr. Devlin—said that he would not make any attempt to get these essential supplies through the strikers and yet his chief medical officer made it clear that hospitals were being supplied, that no patient had been denied surgery and that no patient had died as a result of the strike?

Is it not true that when the workers met the Minister of State, they said that they were prepared to go into the power stations and put 60 per cent. of the power on the grid without payment, provided that that power was used for essential services, and that their offer was denied?

Does the right hon. Gentleman not think—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member has asked about five questions, and that is enough.

Rev. Ian Paisley

I speak for the people of Northern Ireland, and I want to ask one final question. When will the Secretary of State meet the strikers and talk to them?

Mr. Rees

The hon. Gentleman has taken me to task for what I said. He meets daily the people who seek to bring down the Government of Northern Ireland. He meets daily organisations consisting of people who are seeking to bring down the system of government in Northern Ireland that was agreed by both sides of the House. The hon. Gentleman knows that permit cards are being issued in Northern Ireland by those with whom he associates. The hon. Gentleman cannot have double standards and be a democrat here and a demagogue in Northern Ireland. I find distasteful his attempt to stand up as a "loyalist", to use the words of the Queen, and that sort of thing.

The hon. Gentleman and some of his friends are attempting to bring down the elected Government which this country set up under the Constitution Act, and the hon. Gentleman now asks whether I will negotiate with his friends, whether I will negotiate about the supply of electricity, and whether I will give into them about the Sunningdale Agreement. My responsibility is to the House and not to the sort of people with whom the hon. Gentleman is associating, people who are backed by para-military groups with arms and ammunition. That is the sort of man the hon. Gentleman is. He is making a mockery of the Christianity that I learned.

Mr. McNamara

Is my right hon. Friend aware that we are all concerned about the undermining of authority in Northern Ireland and that I therefore welcome the strong words that he has just used?

Is he aware that, among the many disappointments, and, for some, the heartbreaks of the past few days, what we regret most is the problem that has arisen over the Council of Ireland? We welcome my right hon. Friend's statement as representing some faltering steps towards getting agreement between both sides in Ireland, if only to deal with murderers and other people who offend the good taste and good living of others, whether they be Catholic or Protestant?

If the Unionists who support Mr. Faulkner cannot get support at present for a Council of Ireland, in view of what we have heard from the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley), despite whatever educational processes are undertaken, can we reasonably expect that people will be prepared to support that concept and go for an election on it in four years' time?

Mr. Rees

With regard to the Council of Ministers and the Council of Ireland; the arrangements under Section 12 of the Constitution Act are a matter for the Executive. The Executive has a mind and a will of its own, and it knows that any arrangement it makes has to be passed by the Assembly. The Executive knows best the possibility of getting things through the Assembly. Indeed, that was the intention at the Sunningdale meeting in December.

The two bodies have worked together. The Executive has come out with this agreement and, as I have often said in Northern Ireland, whatever works there is ultimately for the decision of the people of Northern Ireland. I believe that that is the only way in which we can proceed. The solution cannot be imposed from here.

Mr. Harry West

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that his statement yesterday in no way allayed the fears of those in Northern Ireland who are entirely against the Sunningdale arrangement? Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that his statement about policing and the arrangements for the police are strongly objected to by the majority in Northern Ireland who resent any interference in police affairs by a foreign country? Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that there is nothing less than a moral obligation on a neighbouring State to introduce extradition, even to the extent of amending its constitution, so that fugitive offenders may be brought to justice?

Further, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that not all parties were invited to the discussions at Sunningdale? Only those parties known to be in favour of the Constitution Act were invited to the discussions at Sunningdale, and the majority of the majority were left out.

Mr. Rees

I am fully aware of the fears of the people of the North about Sunningdale. I still think that if people looked at it carefully, they would see that many of their fears were groundless. Sadly, many people work on the fears, so that people do not understand what Sunningdale is about.

As for policing and the police authority, the police authority and the police will be firmly under the control of the individual Governments. It is right that there should be co-operation; indeed, there is some co-operation now. On fugitive offenders, the important thing is to deal with the matter. There are about 30 people involved, I think, over the past three or four years. That is important, but I put it to the right hon. Gentleman that the fact that I have announced security meetings is, I think, in many respects of greater importance.

Co-operation about security and the police is very important, as, for example, when it was found out that the cars which had exploded in Dublin the other day had emanated from the North. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that it is important to find out where the people came from, to see whether they are back in the North. I can hardly believe that anyone would support what those people did, or, the other way round, what many people who have come from the South have done in the North. It is very important to deal with that on a practical basis, and that is what I seek.

Sir G. de Freitas

Reverting to the use of the word "loyalist"; can my right hon. Friend confirm that neither the Government nor Government agencies will again use the word "loyalist" to describe organised law-breaking in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Rees

I can give an assurance about that. I think that my right hon. Friend will find that it is a self-styled title in most cases. We must sec, but I give that assurance.

Mr. Whitelaw

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that I feel it right now to break what has been my self-imposed silence ever since I left Northern Ireland? Would he agree that this is a time, above everything else, to do everything we can to communicate, to allay unjustified fears and to exercise moderation? Would he not agree that, in those circumstances, it is very important to make it clear to everyone that nothing that has been said in the Sunningdale Agreement, in the Constitution Act, or in anything else, implies any sort of surrender of the North to a united Ireland, but quite the reverse?

Would it not be helpful to everybody in Northern Ireland if now the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) would admit what he knows to be true— that what is said in the Constitution Act and everything that has been said in this House means that there can be no question of any change in the status of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom without the consent of the majority of is inhabitants?

Mr. Rees

I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for uttering those words. He is of course absolutely right. Sunningdale does not push the people of the North into the South. Sunningdale and the Constitution Act provide that the people of the North will decide. They must so decide. It cannot be done any way other than by the people of the North deciding. We shall do our best to get the message through. The right hon. Gentleman is right: we do not get much help from some people.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Speaker

Order. We cannot go further with this matter now.

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