HC Deb 04 December 1975 vol 901 cc1911-5
3. Mr. Gow

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, whether he will make a statement about the security situation in Northern Ireland.

24. Mr. Molyneaux

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what further action he intends to take to eliminate terrorism and to restore the protection of the law to all parts of Northern Ireland.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

In recent months, the security situation has been dominated by sectarian and interfactional strife. The House will recall the activities of the UVF, particularly in October, and the more recent feuding between the Provisional and Official IRA. The House will also be aware of the activities of the IRSP. But recently there have been rather more shootings, bombing attacks and booby traps, for many of which the Provisional IRA have claimed responsibility. The incident that has attracted most attention was a shooting incident near Crossmaglen, in which three soldiers in a covert Army observation post were killed and one seriously injured. Three days later, two members of the RUC were shot dead in an ambush west of Dungannon. There have been a number of incendiary attacks in Newry and elsewhere.

The police, assisted by the Army, have met with success this year in bringing suspected terrorists before the courts. Between 1st January and 1st December, 1,136 people were charged with terrorist-type offences, including 130 with murder and 541 with firearms and explosives offences. All of these cases are being dealt with by the courts.

The Government believe that it is in this way, through the rule of law, that we should aim to bring peace and normality to Northern Ireland.

Mr. Gow

Is the Secretary of State aware that the Opposition support his objective to end detention without trial as soon as possible, as long as it does not endanger the security of Northern Ire land? Is he further aware that in view of his assurances that the rate of the release of detainees from the Maze Prison will be related to the level of violence in Northern Ireland, we are gravely disturbed about his present policy, which aims at releasing the remaining 73 detainees before Christmas—

Mr. Rees


Mr. Gow

Yes, apart from the conviction point. Finally, does the Secretary of State acknowledge that those remaining 50, who are also not subject to a prison sentence, include a hard core and thoroughly dangerous element consisting of men who, when released, are likely to resort to terrorism and violence?

Mr. Rees

I am grateful for support for the general principle. Some prisoners still have substantial sentences to serve. The term "hard core" is a difficult one to use in connection with the remaining 50. About 200 terrorists are released every year, having been through the courts. No one seems to be concerned about recidivism on their part. It is the younger element—those under the age of 19—who seem to return to violence more quickly. The men whom the hon. Gentleman mentioned as being a "hard core" element may not come within the general definition of "hard core". I do not have a list which shows that these "hard core" are the worst offenders. The same applies to those released from prison. I shall end detention. I shall get these people out, and I shall ensure that the members of the minority community, who have been hooked on this for four years, make the decision for themselves. Will they support the forces of law and order? That will be the supreme test.

Mr. Molyneaux

Will the Secretary of State seek an early opportunity to correct the impression given in a report of a recent speech of his, which seemed to imply that he felt that the responsibility for dealing with certain forms of lawlessness did not lie with the Security Forces? Does he agree that lawlessness and violence in all their forms are part and parcel of the same problem, and that if we had clear evidence of the determination of Her Majesty's Government to deal with violence at its source, the message would very quickly get through to all the other troublemakers, which could have quite a dramatic effect on the community in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Rees

I do not know, frankly, to what the hon. Gentleman is referring. Our responsibility for dealing with this matter is complete. The hon. Gentleman knows the Province of Northern Ireland better than most of us. If it were simply a question of the number of soldiers or of police, it would be a relatively easy matter. What we find in many parts of Northern Ireland is that the support of violence—the open house and the hiding of weapons—takes place on a large scale. It is becoming less. The only way that we shall defeat those on both sides of the community who are involved in violence—people who live by the bomb and the gun, by the easy money, and by getting money from pubs and illegal drinking houses; which is the stuff of which all this is made—is by realising that the Security Forces by themselves cannot achieve the objective, and that we must have support from the community. It is the nature of Northern Ireland that that support is not available—sadly, perhaps, but that is the case.

Mr. Fitt

In regard to the overall security situation in Northern Ireland and the eventual ending of detention, does my right hon. Friend recall that it is not only he who has released internees but also his predecessor from the Conservative Party? On taking over in Northern Ireland, his predecessor found it possible to release hundreds of detainees who should never have been detained in the first place, and at that time a certain degree of hysteria was emanating from the Loyalist representatives in the House because of the fact that Loyalists were interned in Northern Ireland. After their release there seemed to be a change of mind on the part of the Loyalist representatives.

Will my right hon. Friend take it from me that I am in total agreement with the call that he has just made from the Dispatch Box? Now that we have got rid of the running sore and cancer of internment, my colleagues and I will do everything in our power to involve the minority population in the attempt to eject the gunmen from their midst.

Mr. Rees

My hon. Friend has developed what I said earlier—that I am carrying out the law. A large number of people were detained by my predecessor. It had to be. That is the law that we operate. It is not a case of locking up people for a determinate sentence. That is the fact of the matter, and it is absolutely right. In those days detention was taking place at the same time. What I am basing my policy on is the fact that 1,200-plus people have gone through the courts, large numbers of them for murders. That is the balance I am endeavouring to achieve. I believe that it is right to end detention, and it is my aim and the Government's aim to do so.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support. The advice that I would give him is this: he should not feel that I am not getting support from members of the Loyalist community and the Unionist community for releases from detention. The people of Northern Ireland understand what is going on. They understand their community. I am sure that I am right, and I am backed by a large amount of support, not only on my hon. Friend's side of the community.