HC Deb 06 November 1974 vol 880 cc1068-76
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Merlyn Rees)

I will, with permission, make a statement on the escapes from the Maze Prison during last night.

Reports which I have received indicate that just after midnight last night, Army sentries in the perimeter watchtowers and prison staff on patrol observed that there were people moving outside the prison perimeter and raised the alarm. Sentries in a post overlooking the M1 motorway close to the prison saw a group of about 20 men approaching. A patrol fired two shots, having challenged the group. One of the group, subsequently identified as Hugh Gerard Coney, a Republican detainee, was found to be dead. The rest of the group surrendered and proved to be Republican detainees who had escaped from the Maze prison.

Subsequently, an attempted escape by Republican detainees from Compound 5 was reported. A hole in the ground was discovered outside the prison perimeter; it appeared to be the mouth of a tunnel and subsequent investigation revealed that the entrance to the tunnel was in a hut in Compound 5. Since the compound was one which had practically been destroyed in the recent burning of the Maze, the hinding of spoil was an easy matter, being scattered among assorted debris.

At 2.25 a.m. rioting broke out in the detainee part of the prison. A large number of Republican detainees attempted to storm the main gate in the administration area but, at the request of the Governor, troops drove them back using CS gas and baton rounds. After about 15 minutes, the detainees retreated to their compounds.

The security forces have recaptured 29 of the escaped detainees. A count of the detainees in the prison indicated that four are still at large. Present reports are that 30 detainees have been treated for injuries; of these, four have been sent to an outside hospital for x-ray. No prison staff have been reported as hurt.

The checking of identities within the prison is proceeding and a search being made for the missing men both inside and outside the prison. No visits or parcels are at present being allowed; they will be resumed as soon as possible.

The circumstances in which one of the escaping detainees lost his life are being investigated by the police; as soldiers were involved, the RUC are being assisted by the Army Special Investigation Branch. A report of this investigation will automatically be submitted to the Director of Public Prosecutions.

The House will not need reminding that the new disturbances follow upon the widespread destruction at the Maze Prison on 15th and 16th October, with which I dealt in my statement on 30th October. Urgent reconstruction work is being undertaken, but this adds to the security problems involved within the camp.

While there remains inevitably a considerable degree of discomfort, rapid progress is being made. All occupied compounds have been provided with Portakabins, gas heating and basic sanitation; the field kitchen has been extended and is serving three hot meals a day; and medical services are operating. I will keep the House informed of the progress of work at the Maze and will in due course make a statement on the prison building programme.

Mr. Ian Gilmour

The House will be glad to learn that this escape attempt was largely, though not completely, foiled, and will appreciate that the task of the security forces has been made much more difficult in this prison by its burning down three weeks ago. Hon. Members will wish to congratulate the security forces on the efficient way in which they dealt with the situation. We are glad to learn that no prison officer was injured.

The Secretary of State has said that a report of the investigation into the shooting will automatically be submitted to the Director of Public Prosecutions. Will he confirm that this in no way implies that the soldier or soldiers concerned were in any way blameworthy?

As it is plain that terrorists are acting in this way in the hope of influencing the Government's future security policy, will the right hon. Gentleman assure that the House that incidents of this kind will have no effect at all on the way in which he looks at the security situation in future? Does he agree that at this particular moment it is very important for all men in public life in Northern Ireland to come to the aid of the security forces and not to criticise either them or the police?

While understanding the difficulties under which the Secretary of State is operating, and sympathising with him, and while in no way suggesting that this is the main cause, still less the sole cause, will he face the fact that the unrest in the prisons in Northern Ireland and elsewhere is made worse by the impression that the Government at present in Northern Ireland are merely drifting? Will he tell the House when he will be able to make an announcement about future policy and when this drifting will stop?

Mr. Rees

With regard to the soldiers and the Director of Public Prosecutions, this is automatic. It follows in every case and implies no judgment upon what happened last night.

It is important to support the security forces in Northern Ireland, given the deaths and the murders that take place in that Province, and, above all, the amount of arms that circulate in the Province and come from all parts of the world.

With regard to the political situation, it is clear; we have had our General Election, and at the appropriate moment there will be elections for a Northern Ireland Convention in the Province.

The point I make is that the violence is carried out usually by people who are not concerned with the political way forward, for if they were so concerned they have the chance in their own Province to see whether people will support them at the ballot box because of their views and not because of fear.

Mr. Fitt

As this escape attempt was restricted to detainees and not convicted prisoners, and as these men have been interned without charge or trial in Northern Ireland, is it not logical to expect that they will engage in every effort to obtain their freedom? Can the Secretary of State say why the findings of the inquiry will be sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions? Does he suspect that an offence has been committed? Can he say in what circumstances the Army is permitted to open fire? Were any of the escapers armed? Was any attempt made to take the life of any member of the security forces?

Finally, will the Secretary of State recognize—he must know this by now —that as long as Long Kesh internment camp remains, there will always be attempts to escape and there will be no peace and no hope of peace in Northern Ireland until internment without trial is ended?

Mr. Rees

With regard to the first point which the hon. Gentleman raises, these were detainees. The action which I described the other day was by properly sentenced prisoners, but this was by detainees.

Next, I must make abundantly clear that the Army is operating in Northern Ireland in support of the civil power, and, whatever happens, if a soldier does what was done here, whatever the provocation, the matter automatically goes before the Director of Public Prosecutions. Some people find that a curious way of proceeding, but we in this country say that the Army is operating in support of the civil power, and that happens automatically. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that this is not appreciated by many of the soldiers in Northern Ireland, who have told me what they have to put up with, with rocket attacks and so on, and then they have accept that a case of this kind will go to the Director of Public Prosecutions. But that is the law, and the fact of the case going to the Director has no bearing whatever on what happened last night.

The other point concerns the number of detainees and the fall of 100 in the last few months. It is not just a question of releasing people from a civil liberties standpoint. I have to take into account that there are other para-military forces in the Province which have indicated to me, and indicated generally, that in the sort of situation there, they would act against the Provisional IRA. It is not a normal colonial-type situation. I repeat that this must be so, given all the facts behind the situation and given all the problems of civil liberty. The hon. Gentleman himself must know this, from the place where he lives and the protection which has to be given to him and to his home. I sympathise with him in that circumstance, as he well knows. But in the Province there is incipient civil war, and we all have to face that. It is not just a matter of one side.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Will the right hon. Gentleman take it from me that the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland will back the security forces and will back the Royal Ulster Constabulary, taking a view entirely different from that of the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt)? Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that the Army is encouraged to put down terrorism and that no deterrents are put on soldiers when they find themselves in a situation such as that which occurred at the Maze?

On another point, does the Secretary of State realise that there are appalling circumstances at present in the Maze prison? Is he aware that there are 200 Loyalist detainees, remand prisoners and sentenced prisoners without beds and without bedding, and that no pillows or sheets have been issued to the prisoners in the Maze at present? Is he aware also that there are beds available in the hospital which could be used by men who are now sleeping on the ground, even without groundsheets? Does he think that 100 men have adequate toilet provision when there is only one toilet to serve those 100 men?

Mr. Rees

The Government's instructions to the Army are quite clear, that it will deal with terrorism wherever it comes from. While the majority of it is carried out by the Provisional IRA, I could wish that what is carried out by the Protestant para-military forces also could be put down, because it is the fear generated by both which leads to many of the political difficulties which successive Governments in this country have had to face.

I put this also to the hon. Gentleman, since he will not mind plain speaking. When the Executive fell, that happened not just because of the Ulster Workers' Council; it was the Ulster Workers' Council backed by Protestant Para-military forces. It happens on both sides, and that is what negates the political advance that we ought to take.

The hon. Gentleman asked me about the circumstances of Loyalist prisoners. All Loyalist prisoners have been issued with a palliasse, a blanket and a polythene groundsheet. As regards toilet facilities there are 13 toilets in each compound. As for electricity—I know that the hon. Gentleman is interested in this as well—all cabling and sub-stations were destroyed two or three weeks ago.

It is easy to comment from the outside. I assure the House that the prison authorities, backed by the Sappers, given what they had to face a fortnight ago, have done a remarkable job, and we shall do all we can to get back to normality. But only the other night a study hut in a Loyalist compound was burned down.

It is difficult in this sort of prison situation to get back to normality, given the nature of the prisons and the nature of the special category prisoners. It is not a normal prison. But the authorities there, on my behalf, have done an excellent job, in the face of what they had to contend with in the first instance.

Mr. Mahon

I appreciate the difficulties with which my right hon. Friend has to contend in Northern Ireland, and I support what he has said, with little exception, but is he aware of the recent statement of the Bishop of Down and Connor, Dr. Philbin, in which he said that if people need the protection of the security forces and of the Army, it is equally reasonable to suggest that those people-give co-operation to the forces in Northern Ireland? Will that sort of responsible statement be given more publicity not only in Northern Ireland and in Ireland generally but among the Irish in this country?

Finally, will my right hon. Friend take it from me, in support of what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt), that there is great concern about internment without trial in Ireland, and will he note, in particular, that that opinion is more and more being held by moderate and reasonable people there?

Mr. Rees

My hon. Friend refers to the speech of Bishop Philbin, who is concerned about the problems of his community in Northern Ireland. No words of praise are too high for his general attitude and that of many of his co-religionists. Bishop Philbin is concerned about his community, and there is no doubt, whatever people's feelings in this House and in the country, that in the face of sectarian murders the community is infected with fear in a way which is difficult for us over here to comprehend. The success of the Royal Ulster Constabulary in dealing with sectarian murders is quite remarkable. Already a man has been arrested for being involved in the case of the two Catholic men who were shot at while going down the Falls Road the other morning. Given the situation there, it is remarkable that this is done.

Now, the question of detention. This is not the sort of detention or internment, whatever the word be, which we know of in some other circumstances. For example, I concerned myself a little time ago with the case of Nelson Mandela, who was detained in South Africa for his political views. Undoubtedly, that sort of detention would be wrong. But I am dealing with a situation in which people are involved in shooting and in killing, when the normal processes of the law cannot be followed. I have to tell my hon. Friend that if I were not to use what is available to me in advance of the Gardiner report, then there are other people in the community who would step in, and there would be a civil war situation in the communities akin to the Cyprus situation. Of that I am sure, and I have to take it into account.

Mr. Kilfedder

Ever since this prison was opened in my constituency, I have protested about its siting. We have heard a great deal about the inmates. I draw the attention of the House to the situation of those who live in proximity to the prison and who suffer a great deal. Does not the Secretary of State realise that, whenever trouble breaks out in the prison, the whole area is sealed off, and many people on the outskirts and in the estate immediately opposite the main gate are subjected to treatment which puts them on a par with the inmates of the prison? Will the Secretary of State realise that these local residents have a nightmarish time, and they might easily have been used in the early hours of this morning as hostages by the escaping prisoners, or have been accidently shot in crossfire or harmed by the CS gas which we are told was used? May we have an assurance that the local people have not been hindered and have not suffered from CS gas?

May I put two other brief points? Will the Secretary of State say whether arms have ever been found inside the prison or on persons visiting the prison? Finally, is there no sophisticated equipment which will detect tunnelling? Surely, in this day and age it must be possible to find out whether people are tunnelling underneath the perimeter of the camp.

Mr. Rees

All I can tell the hon. Gentleman in terms of trying to find things out is that, of course, we did not last night, though it was not for want of trying. It is not as easy as all that.

I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman's constituents are living in a difficult place. They are bound to be sealed off on occasion, and there is no way out of it. My instructions to the Army this morning were to seal off the prison, and that was the essential thing to do. I am sorry for the lion. Gentleman's constituents, but that is a fact of life.

Mr. Carson

Is the Secretary of State aware that there is widespread support for the security forces in Northern Ireland as well as for himself as Secretary of State in spite of the vicious propaganda campaign of the SDLP throughout Northern Ireland that "Rees must go"? Is he aware that 200 beds have been offered by the Loyalist Prisoners' Association for the Loyalist prisoners in the Maze and that these have been refused by the Governor? Can he assure us that the hardships already imposed on Loyalist prisoners through the acts of the IRA will not be increased by the new measures in the Maze Prison resulting from the escape of the IRA last night? Will he also give an assurance that visits to Loyalist prisoners will be restored in full, since they were impaired by the acts of the IRA? Will he confirm that 11 remand prisoners were taken to the Maze Prison two days after the spate of rioting by the IRA?

Mr. Rees

I should be happy to meet the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Carson) to discuss the last point of his supplementary question in detail. The Governor of the Maze Prison has my full support in dealing with the problems in the prison. He is aware of the problems there. The overall support he needs in the way of blankets and so on is provided by us from the outside. Visits will be restored as soon as it is physically possible so to do.