HC Deb 14 January 1975 vol 884 cc201-10
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Merlyn Rees)

I will, with permission, make a statement. I do not apologise for its length, because at this moment the problem of Northern Ireland is a real one.

As the House is aware, there has been a suspension of Provisional IRA violence since midnight on 22nd December 1974. Following the cease-fire, I announced that the actions of the security forces in Northern Ireland would be related to the level of any activity which might occur. This undertaking was reaffirmed in my New Year's Eve message to the people of Northern Ireland. I repeat it again.

The security forces are still on their guard. Vehicle check points continue to be manned to prevent the movement of weapons and explosives, and those against whom there is evidence of involvement in criminal acts will continue to be arrested and brought before the courts. The watch on the border has not been relaxed. It is my duty to ensure that the security forces are ready at all times to deal with any resumption of violence. If it should become necessary, I also have proposals ready to put before the House in order to tighten control on vehicles and on movement in border areas.

Nevertheless, the people of Northern Ireland have seen and welcomed the real but cautious steps I have felt able to take in response to the cease fire. The Army has been able to reduce the size and frequency of patrols, particularly in urban areas. It has also largely avoided the questioning of people and the searching of their homes. There have been no major incidents. I have not signed any interim custody orders since 22nd December.

As I said in my New Year's Eve message, the people of Northern Ireland … seek a lasting peace. This is what the Government seeks. Not a pause, but an end. I went on to say that …a genuine and sustained cessation of violence will create a new situation and new opportunities for progress I promised to set out more fully how the permanent cessation of violence would enable the Army to make a planned, orderly and progressive reduction in its present commitment. It would be wrong to give a time scale for this. I shall have to be convinced that any relaxation and reduction of Army activity will not have to be paid for in lives lost and property destroyed. Once I am so convinced, the room for response is considerable. For example, there could be a further reduction in the size and frequency of Army potrols. The scale of searches of homes and questioning of people could be reduced further; searching of pedestrians entering enclosed areas of town centres could gradually be ended, and a start could be made towards the removal of road humps and road blocks. Searching of vehicles could be reduced, and restrictions on leaving vehicles unattended relaxed. Some Army units on emergency tours could be withdrawn.

In the later stages of this response to a permanent cessation of violence, the Army could be reduced to a peace-time level. It would no longer undertake foot or vehicle patrols in towns, though any such reductions in the Army and its commitments must not be allowed to create a vacuum. As the Army gradually reduced and withdrew to barracks, the community would require that law and order should be maintained by policing throughout Northern Ireland.

I repeat that no time scale can at this stage be put on these possible developments, which must be related to a genuine and sustained cessation of violence. I must also say that, if violence returns, the security forces will deal with it resolutely.

I would now like to turn to detention. As I have said before, the Government have acted legitimately and consistently with the terms of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, in restricting certain fundamental freedoms. The crucial point is that only the Government can decide, in the light of the situation as a whole, when to start bringing detention progressively to an end.

I am prepared to say now that, if there is a genuine and sustained end of violence, I shall progressively release detainees. I do not propose to act precipitately, and any early releases must, and will be, carefully judged in relation to whether a cessation of violence is genuine and sustained.

Once I am satisfied that violence has come to a permanent end, I shall be prepared to speed up the rate of releases with a view to releasing all detainees. In the meantime, I shall be prepared to grant short home leaves for people who remain in detention and shall also consider how released detainees can be resettled.

This policy towards the release of those in detention is related to the permanent cessation of violence including sectarian assassinations. It will apply to any group or movement once I am satisfied that they have renounced violence and sectarian assassinations.

I am not prepared at this stage to give any undertakings about the rate and timing of releases and short home leaves.

Turning now to the Constitutional Convention, I look forward to a fruitful discussion among those who are elected to it. It will be entirely a forum for the people of Northern Ireland. Their elected representatives will have the specific duty and grave responsibility of making recommendations about the future constitutional relationships in Northern Ireland.

In the meantime, I shall continue to welcome constructive discussion with members of the prorogued Assembly. My officials have been, and are, available to hear the views of those in Northern Ireland who have something to contribute to the solution of its problems. Discussions have already taken place with a wide range of citizens from both communities. From the majority community, individuals who are associated with organisations such as the Ulster Defence Association, the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Volunteer Political Party have already given their views to my officials. I should like to make it clear that the same opportunities exist for the Provisional and Official Sinn Fein who, like the Ulster Volunteer Force, were deproscribed by me in May last year and are free to take part in genuine political activity within the law.

As I said in the White Paper of July 1974, the Government welcome the holding of discussions within various groups in the community. It is now important that such groups should engage in constructive talks amongst themselves and with elected representatives and other organisations in Northern Ireland.

The question being asked throughout the whole community is "Can there be peace?" The people of Northern Ireland say "Yes". The Government have responded positively and will continue to do so. We await a similar response from the Provisionals and the other paramilitary organisations.

Mr. Heath

Everyone was glad that there was a cease-fire over Christmas and that that cease-fire was extended.

The contents of the statement which the Secretary of State has just made are in themselves firm and clear, and should therefore give reassurance to those in Northern Ireland who may have doubts about the course of present policy. In particular, the Secretary of State's emphasis that those against whom there is evidence of involvement in criminal acts will continue to be arrested and brought before the courts, which I found to be very clear instructions both to the Army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary when I was in Northern Ireland, after the ceasefire began, should give reassurance to those, particularly perhaps the Protestants, who are worried about this matter.

Again the emphasis of the Secretary of State that the community will require law and order to be maintained by policing throughout Northern Ireland, as the strength of the Army is reduced, is of vital importance not only to the RUC but also to our fellow citizens in Northern Ireland.

May I add that I found in the RUC, I thought, a very considerable gain in confidence over their position of a year ago.

One of the further proposals was the reduction of the searches of pedestrians entering closed areas of town centres and the suggestion that these could gradually be ended. This could apply to Londonderry, where I was able to walk in the streets which neither I nor any Minister would have been able to do a year ago.

May I put this point to the Secretary of State? Surely there is a great dilemma which has faced both previous Governments and the present Secretary of State. Many people believe that it suited the Provisional IRA to have this cease-fire, although the steps taken by the Church ministers were helpful. The dilemma which the Secretary of State faces is how the Government can make progress in the way that is indicated without creating a situation in which the Provisionals can reform, regroup and restrengthen themselves. This matter can be handled only by the intelligence forces of the Army and the RUC.

May I ask for two undertakings? The first is that the Secretary of State is not having negotiations with the IRA. He said that they cannot bomb themselves into the Constitutional Convention, although he will listen to the political views of Sinn Fein. Secondly, will the right hon. Gentleman undertake to heed the continuing advice of the Army and the RUC as to the dangers of the Provisionals regrouping as a result of the extension of the cease-fire and the proposals that he is making? If the right hon. Gentleman gives those undertakings, is he aware that everyone in the House will support him?

Mr. Rees

I am glad that the Leader of the Opposition has taken up the point of reassurance. It matters at this crucial time that all of us in this Parliament should act in a way to reassure both sides of the community in Northern Ireland, who themselves have real fears, even if they are very difficult to understand.

With regard to arrests, during the period from 22nd December to 13th January for offences concerning firearms, murder, attempted murder, hijacking and so on, 45 people have been arrested by the police. Policing is very important—all Governments have been aware of this—and the developments in the police in the last few months of a technical nature are extremely important. The important one which I know the right hon. Gentleman found on his visit is a great improvement in morale.

I agree that there is a dilemma as to the purposes of the Provisional IRA, and of course I take the advice of the security forces. As for the right hon. Gentleman's insistence on no negotiations with the IRA, I have made the point before, and I do so again firmly. We shall continue to indicate that we require a genuine and sustained cessation of violence to all those who are talking in Northern Ireland. I want to make sure that there is no doubt that our view gets to the IRA at second hand and that we get its view as well.

It is important at this moment because everyone in Northern Ireland is listening. There will be no negotiations. But it matters at the moment for people in Northern Ireland not to listen to rumours or to speculation. It is an important time in Northern Ireland. What is most important of all is far greater than the views of politicians, whether here or there; it is the mood in the community, in both parts of the community, and they desperately want peace.

Mr. Molyneaux

Is the Secretary of State aware that the skilful manner in which he has to date handled a very delicate situation has inspired and will continue to inspire confidence and trust throughout the whole Northern Ireland community? Is he aware also that there will be widespread acceptance of the statement made earlier today by the Secretary of State for Defence that the planned reduction in the Army commitment has been largely possible because of the success of the actions of the Armed Forces and the security forces generally? Finally, will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind the necessity to secure a real state of return to lawful conditions and law enforcement in Northern Ireland before there can be any large-scale release of detainees, if only in the interests of the detainees, since it would serve no useful purpose if they were released to areas where law did not exist?

Mr. Rees

I am very grateful for the hon. Gentleman's remarks. It may not have always been the case that people have understood that the party and the Government to which I am proud to belong, like former Conservative administrations, are not in business to sell the Protestants down any river. It is most important that that is realised. We are concerned with both communities in Northern Ireland and with the fears that both communities have. I only pray at this moment, when there is a chance, that people and politicians in all parties in Northern Ireland will take the opportunity presented to them. There will be no reduction in the Army unless there is a genuine and sustained cessation of violence, and I am very well aware of the need not to have a vacuum. Since last March there has been a reduction of three battalions in Northern Ireland. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that this has not weakened the Army's rôle in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Fitt

Although I fully support the steps taken by the Secretary of State and others in their attempts to bring about a permanent cease-fire, I should be less than honest to myself, to my constituents and to a large section of the population in Northern Ireland if I did not express my deep, sincere and heartfelt disappointment at the fact that the Secretary of State has omitted to mention the release of any detainees. The whole minority community in Northern Ireland and those who are bitterly opposed to the campaign of violence would be further alienated from giving any type of support to the campaign of violence of the Provisional IRA if effective steps were taken to bring detention to an end. So long as there is detention in Northern Ireland, it will be absolutely impossible to bring about a political solution. Even at this late stage and despite my deep disappointment, I appeal to the Secretary of State to look again at the matter of detention urgently and to bring about as many releases as he can. That is one sure and effective way of making certain that the IRA has no support in the community in the future.

Mr. Rees

I hope that my hon. Friend will read my statement carefully. He may not have heard what I said. The Government's policy is clear. If there is a sustained cessation of violence, my aim is to release all detainees. That is the aim of the Government, and it is a most important and laudable aim. However, something that I have learned about Northern Ireland is that there will not be an overnight answer to an age-old problem. We must proceed carefully and cautiously. But on that basis I want to see emergency units returned and I want to see a complete end to detention—not a fortnightly bargaining for people.

Mr. Beith

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman's statement. Does he agree that this taste of peace has had a profound effect on the Northern Ireland community and that any organisation which sought a resumption of violence would be likely to lose the confidence of some of those who have supported it hitherto? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree further, however, that the cessation of violence and the opportunities that it provides for the release of detainees applies equally to any violence which might develop in the rest of the United Kingdom in association with events in Northern Ireland? Is not this part of the process of the restoration of confidence in the community on which the release of detainees must depend?

Mr. Rees

On that most important point about the spread of violence here, it is not of course my departmental responsibility, but I assure the hon. Gentleman on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary that the firmest action will be taken against those who perpetrate violence on this side of the Irish Sea. The important thing at the moment is to consider all the possibilities. But I have in mind the present feeling in Northern Ireland. The Leader of the Opposition talked about Londonderry. In a developing way all over it is the people of Northern Ireland who will decide what the future is to be. At the moment they are welling up with a strong desire for peace. That is my view and understanding of the needs of the people in both communities.

Mr. McNamara

Is my right hon. Friend aware that no one will lightly forgive any person or organisation breaking this very fragile peace? Is he aware, further, that it is to be welcomed that he is not now bartering bodies against time but in many ways is putting everything on the plate to be accepted? It is the acceptance of the whole package which is all-important. It seems strange to me that many in this House do not seem to realise the new level to which the debate has been raised by my right hon. Friend, and that his very important statement will have a considerable effect on the situation described by my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt).

Mr. Rees

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has known Northern Ireland well for many years and has strong views. It may well be that history will look with horror at those who might try to break this cease-fire, in the face of the 1,200 dead and 11,000 injured. I say briefly but very sincerely that I am extremely grateful for his understanding of what I am trying to do to lift the level of the discussions away from week to week and to try to break through at this moment.

Mr. Farr

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on the way in which he has handled this very delicate matter so far. He may be interested to know that over Christmas in the south of Ireland the flags were out on many houses, not to celebrate Christmas but to celebrate the cease-fire.

Could I probe a little more on the purpose of the Provisionals in having this cease-fire? Does he regard this as an indication of some form of exhaustion on their part or does he lean towards the theory that they are perhaps developing a form of regrouping ready for action later?

Mr. Rees

There could be an interesting discussion and analysis of what lies beneath this—whether it is due only to the Feakle meeting, and so on. But I think the best thing I can do at the moment is to look on all people who are talking and thinking in Northern Ireland as being sincere and simply tell them that the British Government and the British House of Commons are acting with sincerity—and, until it is proved otherwise, I take them to be acting with sincerity as well.

Mr. Rose

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his very carefully-thought-out approach to de-escalation of the conflict could be the most positive contribution yet to an ultimate peaceful solution in Northern Ireland, and that he deserves the congratulations of the people of both these islands on his efforts? Would he also consider very carefully whether the time has come to withdraw troops from sensitive areas in Northern Ireland and to revise internment procedures, in the hope of further reciprocal gestures? Will he undertake to be steadfast in his determination not to be deflected by any threats there may be from extremist groups or politicians who wish to perpetuate the status quo and who oppose power sharing?

Mr. Rees

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his understanding of what the Government are aiming to do. With regard to sensitive areas, the Army has already altered its profile, and its profile can still alter very greatly if there is a genuine cease-fire. There is no doubt that with the best will on earth the Army, acting quite properly in areas to get information, can arouse strong feelings, as we all would know if we lived in the areas concerned. I am looking very carefully at the rôle of the Army and at law and order in these communities, with the very active co-operation of the Services and the security forces, which understand this problem because they live there, and I know the work that they are doing.

With regard to detention procedures, my hon. Friend will recall that I said I had signed no ICOs since the beginning, and I believe that is the best beginning of procedures that I could make.

Mr. David James

The Secretary of State will know that I, too, have been over in Ireland for 10 days. I should like to offer him my warmest congratulations. Would he accept that in my judgment his firm and sensible statement on detention will be welcomed every bit as much in Dublin as it is being welcomed in Belfast?

Mr. Rees

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's views. I know that he has just been in Ireland, and his views on these matters are always of great interest.