HC Deb 08 December 1975 vol 902 cc31-6
Mr. Neave

(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whether he will make a statement on the ending of detention in Northern Ireland.

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Stanley Orme)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made clear to the House the aim of Government policy to release all detainees and in explaining this policy recently emphasised his intention to achieve this by Christmas. He made this clear again last Thursday. The last 46 detainees were released on Friday. Since 1971 over 2,000 persons have been released—about half under the previous administration.

Mr. Neave

I thank the Minister of State for that statement, which could have been made in some detail at Question Time last Thursday but which was not made. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the very deep misgivings caused by the fact that the Government have taken this step when violence in Northern Ireland remains at its present level? Is it not possible that they will be forced into the vicious circle of renewing detention? Although we agree that the long-term solution is to bring criminals before the courts, does the right hon. Gentleman recall that on more than one occasion the Secretary of State has said that detention would not be ended until the violence had been checked? Are a number of the men released on Friday self-confessed and advertised members of an illegal organisation, and will they be prosecuted in the courts?

Mr. Orme

On the hon. Gentleman's first question about last Thursday, my right hon. Friend had re-emphasised that it was his intention to end detention. The way in which he did it could be a matter involving security. I hope that the hon. Gentleman realises that, and that that affected the manner in which it was done. The Government must decide when is the best time to do it.

As for whether the policy will be a success, we believe very much that it will. In recent months, with the phasing out of detention, there has been a detachment from the minority community of the men of violence, and we have had evidence over the weekend that that community welcome very much the ending of detention. We now look forward to positive support from both communities in Northern Ireland in tackling violence.

As for the men in question being members of organisations, the hon. Gentleman knows the problems that exist in regard to that. But I assure him that the law will be prosecuted in whichever way the security forces and not least the police believe that it should be, and that is how the Secretary of State would like to see it carried out.

Mr. Stallard

Does my right hon. Friend accept that this courageous decision, especially in present difficult circumstances, will be welcomed by all, both inside this Chamber and outside it, in the two communities who are still striving for a peaceful political solution and the reconciliation of the two communities in Northern Ireland? But has my right hon. Friend any concrete evidence yet that this step will help to bring about that reconciliation between the two communities?

Mr. Orme

I thank my hon. Friend for his opening remarks. No one pretends, not least the Government, that this was an easy decision to take. But we believe that it was the correct one. We believe that we shall get increasingly the co-operation of both communities. The pursuit of this criminal activity through the courts is beginning to bring real success. More people have been convicted of serious crimes of violence this year than ever before. We hope that this policy will lead to political advancement in Northern Ireland and, not least, isolate those people who turn to violence to try to achieve their ends. As my right hon. Friend has said before, much of the recent violence has had little to do with politics or with the aspirations of either of the two communities in Northern Ireland.

May I deal with the latter part of my hon. Friend's question? We have already had indications, not least from the minority community, that sections of that community who have been refusing co-operation on a political basis through rent and rate strikes and other means are now publicly ending their actions. We welcome that.

Mr. Molyneaux

Does the Minister agree that the success or failure of release policies will depend greatly on the minority throwing their full weight and influence behind a determined Government drive to eradicate terrorism, for which there can be no possible excuse now? Until the entire Northern Ireland community are thus united, will the Government take resolute and firm action against all forms of continuing terrorism?

Mr. Orme

In answer to that last point, I can give an emphatic "Yes". In the first part of his question the hon. Gentleman referred to the minority community. I believe that this House will be speaking in terms that the minority community will understand and to which they will respond. However, as the hon. Gentleman is aware, sectarian violence has come from both communities. I know the part that he has played in opposing that, and I know that he will continue to do so. Only when we get rid of that type of violence in Northern Ireland can we move forward politically.

Mr. Fitt

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the policy of releasing internees and detainees began under the previous Conservative Administration and that he has only continued a process that was begun by that Conservative Administration? Is he aware that on 9th August 1972, 1973, 1974 and 1975 the Provisional IRA lit bonfires on the streets of Belfast to celebrate the introduction of internment—the greatest weapon in its armoury—and that there were no bonfires on the streets of Belfast when internees and detainees were released last week? Will he further accept that the overwhelming majority of both communities in Northern Ireland now want to co-operate fully with the Government to eradicate the men of violence from their midst?

Mr. Orme

I thank my hon. Friend for that statement. It was the intention of the previous Conservative Administration, as displayed by the previous two Secretaries of State, to phase out and end detention. That was this Government's policy, which I am pleased to say we have achieved. Those who want this policy to succeed will give it their overwhelming support. I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware that those who are most disappointed about the ending of detention in Northern Ireland are those who have turned to violence in Northern Ireland.

Sir D. Walker-Smith

Does the right hon. Gentleman appreciate that this statement could have been made last Thursday or, perhaps, on the Friday? Will he assure the House that, wherever considerations of security make it possible, he will give information first to the House in accordance with normal constitutional practice? On the merits of the question, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that although everyone would prefer the due and full processes of the law, efficiency depends on the logistics available? Is he satisfied that the resources of the courts and of apprehension are sufficient for the full substitution of judicial proceedings in such a way as to secure the conviction and punishment of those who commit acts of terrorism and that this will be an effective deterrent to further future acts?

Mr. Orme

The answer to the second part of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's question is, yes—people are now being processed through the courts in a judicial manner. They are tried and, if convicted, sentenced. They are being sentenced for crimes of violence, including murder, to terms of imprisonment which are appropriate to the crimes that they have committed.

The average length of internment has been approximately 18 months. Last year the Commissioners released about 300 people from detention. It is possible that some had committed quite serious crimes, but at that time it was impossible to bring them before the courts. Increasingly, people are now being brought before the courts and evidence is being submitted from both communities which leads to convictions. The courts are operating in a manner with which I am sure the right hon. and learned Gentleman would agree.

I can assure the right hon. and learned Gentleman that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State meant no discourtesy to the House when he made his statement last Thursday. He made it clear at Question Time last Thursday that we were seriously examining this matter. On Thursday we shall seek to renew the emergency provisions legislation, when this matter could have been raised. My right hon. Friend made the decision in what he regarded as the most expeditious manner and in the interests of the security forces as much as anything else.

Mr. David Steel

Will not the Minister agree that all hon. Members who wish to see a return to law and order in the Province should welcome this step as one along the long road to the return of law and order by returning to judicial normality in the Province? Some hon. Members find it difficult to understand why there has been dragging of feet on this question.

Mr. Orme

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his statement and his support. Having seen the operation of internment—detention as it was later called—under the present Administration and the problems that it created, I believe that we are better without it and that it is better to use the rule of law and the force of law.

Mr. Dalyell

Does my right hon. Friend appreciate that some of us who have visited Long Kesh and the women's prison in Armagh have been urging this sort of action for two long years, and that we shall stand up and be counted with him and his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State? We wish him well in his policy, which I am sure is right. What evidence is there of detachment from the extremists, to whom he referred earlier in his statement?

Mr. Orme

I thank my hon. Friend for his support and for his statement. Obviously my right hon. Friend would not want to go into detail and it might not be in the interests of those concerned to name names at present. The information being given to the Government at present is of a positive, not a negative, nature.

Mr. Amery

Although we hope that the gamble of the Minister of State and his right hon. Friend will pay off, will the right hon. Gentleman assure us that he and his right hon. Friend will retain the power and the intention to return to internment should they be proved wrong?

Mr. Orme

We do not look upon this as a gamble. We recognise that difficulties are involved, but we regard this as a positive step forward in trying to bring the two communities together and to reach a political settlement. On Thursday my right hon. Friend will move the readoption of the emergency provisions legislation which will retain the powers, if he so needs them, for detention in the future. The Government hope that they will not need them, but the power will be there.