HC Deb 30 October 1974 vol 880 cc212-20
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Merlyn Rees)

I will, with permission, make a statement on the prison disturbances which occurred in Northern Ireland on 15th and 16th October. In view of the gravity of the events, I thought it right to take the earliest opportunity to report to the House.

Disturbances occurred at the four main prisons—Maze, Crumlin Road, Magilligan and Armagh—and involved prisoners, persons on remand and detainees. I should add that of 2,700 persons in prisons in Northern Ireland, approximately 500 are detainees.

On the evening of Tuesday 15th October a small group of convicted Republican prisoners in the Maze Prison seized and assaulted a number of prison officers. Soon after, the prisoners began to engage in widespread destruction in the prison. Buildings were ransacked, looted and set on fire; 18 of the 21 compounds were destroyed or seriously damaged, as were the prison hospital, the new kitchen, the shop, the visitors' reception buildings and internal towers. An early attempt was made to storm the main gate, but this was repulsed by prison officers, who also rescued from the cell block four prisoners who were in danger of being burnt to death. At the Governor's request, an Army detachment entered the prison to secure the main gate and took over the adjoining administrative area from which the prison staff were then withdrawn. The Army detachment used baton rounds to repel further attacks, also, with my approval, a limited amount of CS gas.

Strong Army reinforcements were sent to the area during the night, and the outside perimeter was secured. As soon as it was light on the next day, the Army moved into the prison in strength to restore order. Rather more than 200 Republican detainees who had remained in their compounds offered no reistance, but the remainder of the Republican detainees, together with Republican prisoners, concentrated at the opposite end of the prison, armed with a variety of weapons, including sharpened lengths of timber, steel piping, knives and iron bed legs. When an attempt was made to disarm them, a vicious battle ensued with the Army. CS gas and baton rounds had to be used before order could be restored. Loyalist prisoners and detainees were not involved in this engagement.

As soon as the riot began, all medical services stood by, and casualty details were published as they became available in the course of the day in order to dispel grossly exaggerated and alarmist rumours. Over 300 prisoners claimed to be hurt, but after examination by prison doctors only a small number were taken to hospital for further examination. Only nine were admitted as hospital cases, three of whom have since been discharged. Altogether 14 prison officers were injured; four were admitted for hospital treatment, and all of these have been discharged. Twenty-three soldiers were injured; 16 were sent to hospital, but none was admitted as a hospital patient.

Trouble spread to other prisons during the day. At Armagh women's prison, the Governor and three female officers were seized as hostages when the prisoners heard rumours of death and serious injury to prisoners at the Maze. Fourteen hours later the prisoners released the hostages unharmed after two chaplains had persuaded them that these rumours were unfounded. There were no injuries. In Crumlin Road Prison Republicans on remand barricaded themselves on two floors during the afternoon of Wednesday 16th October. There was considerable damage, but order was restored by troops in support of the prison staff with the aid of CS gas and baton rounds. There was considerable resistance and some 131 prisoners received injuries, mostly minor. Ten were taken to hospital for examination but all were returned.

At Magilligan Prison some Republican convicted prisoners burnt the kitchen, part of the hospital, and a number of other huts. Order was restored by the prison officers. There were no injuries involving prisoners but three prison officers received minor injuries.

A preliminary estimate suggests that the cost of repairing the damage done at the Maze Prison will be approximately £1½ million, at Magilligan Prison £200,000 and at Crumlin Road considerably less.

During the night of 15th-16th October I gave orders that repair work should start at the Maze immediately the riot was contained. Protective sheeting was provided to render habitable some of the accommodation huts which had not been totally destroyed. Field kitchens and mobile sanitary units were also brought in, and temporary repairs were carried out to the hospital. Prisoners were given blankets and palliasses.

Restoration work at the Maze is now proceeding, and pressure on accommodation there has been eased by the transfer of just over 100 convicted prisoners to Magilligan Prison. Visiting facilities and food parcels are being restored to a limited extent and will be extended as restoration work proceeds.

I have, with the agreement of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, asked the retiring Chief Inspector of Prisons at the Home Office to examine the outbreak and circumstances of the violent disturbances at the Maze and to report to me as soon as possible. Given the nature of the inquiry the report will be confidential, but I shall, when the report is received, make a statement to the House.

I should like to pay tribute to the courage and restraint shown by the prison officers and the members of the Armed Services who had to withstand vicious assaults during the riots and in restoring order subsequently. About 1,000 prisoners took part in the disturbances at the Maze, and in the circumstances it is remarkable that there were so few casualties.

Mr. Ian Gilmour

I am sure the House will agree that the Secretary of State was right to make a statement about this appalling and savage course of events. I am sure, too, that the House will join the right hon. Gentleman in praising and thanking the prison officers and the Armed Forces for their skilful and courageous conduct in a very vicious situation.

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman a few specific questions? First, is he satisfied with the present recruitment and the present outlook of prison officers in Northern Ireland? Second, was it merely because the Army had to wait for light that troops did not go in until the morning, or were there other operational reasons? I should have thought that there might be sufficient floodlighting there.

Third, is it true that there were warnings that trouble was expected at the Maze? If so, what additional preparations were made? Fourth, can the right hon. Gentleman say what attitude the prisoners are now taking to the rebuilding of the prison? Are they helping, hindering, or doing nothing at all.

Finally, what is the position about the building of a new prison? It has been mooted for a long time. How far has this project proceeded? What thought is being given in the renovation of the Maze to making it more difficult for this sort of thing to happen again?

Mr. Merlyn Rees

With regard to the recruitment of prison officers in Northern Ireland, we have a very large recruitment campaign but the pool from which we can draw to get large numbers is limited. I am grateful to my right hon. Friends the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Scotland because a number of prison officers from England and Scotland are serving in Northern Ireland.

With regard to the Army, the advice that I was given, which I accepted when I was with the Army over that night, was that given the pall of smoke and the problems of light—because practically everything was destroyed—in the interests of what might happen when the Army went in it was better that there should be light. But the Army had secured the perimeter.

As for warnings, we had heard stories that something might happen and there had been a long-drawn-out series of complaints about the Maze in the months before. These, of course, were taken account of by the security authorities beforehand.

As regards the attitude of the prisoners, I think that the best description is that there is no hindrance.

As for the prison building programme and a new permanent prison, plans would have had to be laid about six or seven years ago to have had any bearing on the immediate situation. I hope to be able to make a statement on the wider prison programme in Northern Ireland shortly.

Mr. Stonehouse

Does not the distressing report which my right hon. Friend has given us today lend support to the idea that it would be wrong as yet for the Price sisters to be removed to a prison in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

The transfer of the Price sisters is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, and, of course, for me because of my responsibility for prisons in Northern Ireland, and all relevant facts will be taken into account.

Mr. Molyneaux

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the figures of those injured which he originally issued were deliberately contradicted by certain persons in Northern Ireland in an attempt to undermine the authority of the Government? Will he be assured that the United Ulster Unionists have not joined these so-called moderate parties in questioning his integrity? Will he bear in mind that the vast majority of those who caused the disturbances in the first place were convicted prisoners and not internees and that, therefore, the anti-internment capital which has since been made out of these incidents is bogus? Finally, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there is general endorsement of his view that the prison officers and the Armed Forces acted with commendable restraint in the circumstances and that this is confirmed in the figures of comparatively light casualties?

Mr. Merlyn Rees

The figures which I issued in the afternoon, in the face of the alarmist rumours which were spreading, were the correct figures in a developing situation. I rest on that. The hon. Gentleman's reference to convicted prisoners is reasserting what I have said already. It started with convicted prisoners. I have given my praise to those who had to deal with an extremely difficult situation. In the early hours of that morning, when the prison was alight, I was very pleased to be able to depend on clear instructions which were being given in a very difficult situation.

Mr. McNamara

I apologise to my right hon. Friend that owing to traffic delays I missed the opening part of his statement. Those of us who were given the opportunity to visit the Maze as soon as possible after the disturbances were most obliged to him for the facilities he made available to us, and I think I speak here for all the parties concerned.

Most of us are aware of the unjust criticisms to which my right hon. Friend has been subjected concerning casualties in the course of a difficult situation on a difficult afternoon. It was amazing that in the circumstances there was no loss of life among either the prison officers or the soldiers in these difficult and dangerous circumstances.

Does not my right hon. Friend realise that whilst there are together convicted prisoners and internees, and while internment is such a sore, not only among the minority population but growing among the majority population, until we get rid of the evil of internment there is an increasing likelihood of this sort of incident taking place?

Mr. Merlyn Rees

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments on the visit which was arranged by the Government for the parties in the House. I am grateful, too, for his words about myself. He is right that the difficulty that prison staff have in running prisons where there is a mix of prisoners is a real one, and I hope to make a statement on this shortly.

There are many sides to the question of detention and the effect that it has in the community, as we all well know. I am sure that we shall have an opportunity to debate the matter shortly. I can say only that numbers have been released. The remarkable point is that the instigation of all that went on was from convicted prisoners. I suspect that this will be the next aspect that we shall have to face in the months to come.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Does the Secretary of State agree that in reality this was an attempt to bring down the whole prison system in Northern Ireland? Will he confirm that some of the prisoners now moved to the Magilligan camp took no part in the disturbances at the Maze? Will he ensure that the hardship caused to the relatives of those prisoners, who when visiting now have to travel from Belfast to Magilligan instead of to the Maze, will be taken into account? Will he ensure that those who took no part in the disturbances may have their visiting facilities restored as soon as possible and will be permitted food parcels?

Mr. Merlyn Rees

It is possible to take all sorts of views about what went on, but it looked like an attempt to bring down the whole prison system. Many people in the Maze and other prisons took no part in it. As for the movement to Magilligan, a large element of this was voluntary, but I shall certainly look at the problem of those who have to travel north to Magilligan.

As for visits, I agree that there are problems in view of the damage that was done to the visiting huts and the difficulties that are created with the contractors and sappers now rebuilding. I intend that we shall do all we can, particularly for those who played no part in the incident. It will be a difficult job in the phased programme that is now being undertaken, but from the tone of the hon. Member's remarks I can see that he appreciates the difficulties for prison staff and the governor, and I must be advised by them about the problems faced within the prisons.

Mr. Duffy

Further to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central (Mr. McNamara), will the Secretary of State say how many special category prisoners there are in Northern Ireland and how many were involved in the revolt at the Maze? In view of the special problems that arise from their confinement in proximity to other prisoners, does not this raise urgently the question of their separate accommodation?

Mr. Merlyn Rees

My hon. Friend is right to return to the difficulties of administering prisons given the different nature of the prisoners involved and the fact that the prisons are not cellular but are open compounds with huts.

Of the total number of 2,700 prisoners in prisons in Northern Ireland and 500 detainees, 1,000 are special category prisoners. I believe this to be a point that we will have to come back to. I cannot give my hon. Friend the exact number of special category prisoners who were involved, but I hope that the report I have called for will investigate this matter and give me firmer evidence than I have at the moment.

Mr. Lane

Concerning the point raised by the right hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Stonehouse), will the right hon. Gentleman convey to the Home Secretary that most of the public would think it outrageous if the current problems in Ulster were added to by any premature transfer of Irish prisoners from England to Ulster.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

I can only say on this whole matter that I am well aware of my responsibilities and my problems, and that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary of course consults me on those aspects of any move that affects Northern Ireland.

Mr. Dalyell

Since it is surprising to some of us who visited the women's prison in Armagh during the summer that the governor ever allowed himself to get into such a position, what lessons have been learned?

Mr. Merlyn Rees

When my hon. Friend visits Armagh again he will find that the nature of the happening there was rather different from the nature of the happening elsewhere. I am sure that the governor, who is an excellent governor, will ensure that any lessons learnt from that 14-hour happening will be learnt.

Mr. McCusker

Does not the Secretary of State agree that the conditions which prevailed in that aniquated building commonly known as Armagh Gaol probably contributed to the situation which developed? Can he assure us that in his forthcoming statement he will indicate what provisions are being made to provide a proper, secure, modern prison service for women in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Merlyn Rees

Heaven only knows that in Armagh, an old prison, there are problems. However, I do not think that the nature of the prison led to the problems there. I do not think they were related to the long-term needs of prison accommodation in Northern Ireland. If at any time in the last months I had wanted a new, modern, secure, brick-built cellular prison to begin construction, it would have been for completion in the latter years of this decade. If there had to be new prisons in Northern Ireland to have any bearing on the current situation, their plans and execution would have had to have begun in 1969–70, and at that time I had no responsibility for these matters.

Mr. Thorne

Is the Secretary of State prepared to say that the whole policy of the Government in Northern Ireland will be appraised, particularly on the question of internment, trial without jury and the whole range of emergency powers that the Government presently have? Will he also say when we may expect a Bill of Rights in Northern Ireland under which minority religious groups will be protected in employment, housing and civil rights? Will my right hon. Friend confirm that CR gas was not used in recent disturbances?

Mr. Merlyn Rees

I can confirm that no CR gas was used. As for the reappraisal of detention and so on, my hon. Friend will know that the Gardiner Committee is sitting and that we promised a commission to look at this aspect of it when we came into power, and this we have done. Whatever the law is in Northern Ireland, there is one basic factor which stands out even from the matters which afflict us at the moment: there are 12,000 injured and 1,100 dead in a society with an incipient civil war, and the normal methods cannot be applied. If we were to try to use the normal methods, in my view there would not be incipient civil war but basic civil war which would spread to the other parts of the community, and I can never forget that matter in my responsibility for those in Northern Ireland.