HC Deb 04 December 1975 vol 901 cc1908-11
2. Mr. Beith

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland how many persons are currently serving detention without trial in Northern Ireland.

12. Mr. Hooley

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland how many persons were held in detention without trial in Northern Ireland on 1st January 1975; and how many are currently so held.

31. Mr. Watkinson

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement about the numbers of persons presently in detention in Northern Ireland.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Merlyn Rees)

Seventy-three persons are currently held in detention, of whom 26 are serving prison sentences.

Mr. Beith

Will the Secretary of State note that we on the Liberal Bench, at least, support his policy of ending detention not because we have any illusion about there being a cease-fire in operation but because detention has proved to be more valuable to the IRA than to the forces of law and order?

Mr. Rees

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support. I should also point out that since detention was introduced the level of violence has been consistently higher than before, and that there is no direct correlation. Last year I personally detained a large number of men—I think about 400—under interim custody orders. That was done not because I believed that detention would end the violence, but because it undoubtedly dampens down any great escalation of violence. We might have to return to it again. This year more than 1,260 people have gone through the courts. I believe that that is the method that we should use, rather than of detention.

Mr. Hooley

Is my right hon. Friend aware that I fully support his policy? I believe that it shows great credit to his political courage. Is he further aware that if the same political courage was shown by some of the stupid bigots on either side in Northern Ireland the situation would improve?

Mr. Rees

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's general support. I realise that it is easy for us to say this here, but, as a Government and Opposition, we must find a way of allowing people to get away from locked views which have a historical and cultural base. That is what we are trying to do, on the political side.

Mr. Neave

If the Secretary of State persists in releasing these detainees, does he intend to make the law on proscribed organisations more enforceable? We applaud the success of the RUC, but does the right hon. Gentleman recall describing some of the detainees on 5th December last year as the organisers and members of assassination squads"?—[Official Report, 5th December 1974; Vol. 882, c. 2074.] How many of the 73 people whom he intends to release fit this description, or are bomb experts? On 9th July last did he not say that detention could not be ended until violence was checked? Why has he changed his mind? Is he not aware that the long-term objective of the IRA is to terrorise people in the United Kingdom?

Mr. Rees

I have great experience in locking people up. I have not simply read the Act; I have dealt with every case individually. In many cases the people concerned were not directly involved in the carrying of the bombs; they were involved in the organisation of the attack. I have detained 400 of the 2,000 people who have been detained. If one wanted to put inside those who were involved in some way—and this is not just on the minority side—the figure would be not 2,000 or 5,000, but 6,000 or 7,000. For every person who is detained, like dragon's teeth, someone else joins the organisation.

Mr. Neave

How many?

Mr. Rees

The point is that detention does not solve the issue. Those who were put away by me or by my predecessors were no different from the other 1,800 or 1,900 detainees. Every one has been involved in some way. It is not the law that I shall detain these people until the campaign is over. The commissioners released 400 people last year; that is the law. It was the UDA that claimed responsibility for the bomb in Dublin, not the Provisional IRA. Therefore, both sides of the community are involved. [Interruption.] If I took the advice of the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Churchill) I should need not two camps, but six, or even eight. Of the 73 to be released, all have been involved in violence in some way.

Mr. Neave

They are assassination squads.

Mr. Rees

No, they are not assassination squads. One has to be very careful if one says that men, on both sides of the community, are assassins and killers. I said that a large number of them were. To apply that description to the last 50 would be extremely dangerous.

Mr. Watkinson

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is widespread support by Labour Members for his decision to end detention without trial, but that if we are trying to promote the rule of law in Northern Ireland it is only right that people should be brought before the courts and tried? Will he say what progress has been made to improve rehabilitation facilities in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Rees

Rehabilitation for anyone who has been in prison is a matter for the prison authorities, whatever may be the paramilitary organisations to which he belongs. Whether they are in gaol because they were sentenced to imprisonment—which is the case in respect of 1,500—or whether they are detainees, they are not interested in rehabilitation. To be frank, rehabilitation of the normal sort is not relevant to the nature of those who are put away.

Mr. Mates

Is it not true that whatever the merits or otherwise release from detention—and the arguments are balanced on it—it is something that clearly, the right hon. Gentleman will pursue to the end? In view of that and of what the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) said about policing in the Catholic areas, will the right hon. Gentleman take the most robust steps to press the leaders of the minority community to keep their part of the bargain, namely, that when detention without trial is ended—this has been a running sore within the minority community—they will do all in their power to urge full support for the forces of law and order in Ulster?

Mr. Rees

The hon. Gentleman's knowledge of the streets of Belfast is greater than that of those of us here who are not from Northern Ireland. In recent months, one of the reasons for the greater degree of success of the police and the security forces in obtaining evidence to put before the courts is that the minority community has been giving that evidence to the police. This is due to a lowering of tension, in relation to detention. In the past, a crowd could always be gathered in the Falls or in the Springfield Road, and one could always collect money for "our boys". That is not now happening. To that extent there is a greater amount of support for the police and the security authorities than ever before.

The question of outward support for the police is difficult. Many other matters are involved. The majority of the minority, who are men of responsibility, want to support, and are supporting, the police. We have to unlock the door politically and give these people, together with other sections of the community, responsibility for dealing with law and order.

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