§ 4.8 p.m.
§ The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Merlyn Rees)
I will, with permission, make a statement.
Since the cease-fire resumed on 10th February, there have been no major incidents between the security forces and the Provisional IRA. The Government incident centres set up to communicate about possible misunderstandings which might threaten the cease-fire have been of practical value.
A beginning has been made in changing the rôle of the Army. For example, there has been a considerable reduction in the size and frequency of Army patrols and in the scale of searching and questioning. Some road blocks and some road humps have been removed.
The House will know that, despite the Provisional cease-fire, violence has not ceased. There have been feuds between various groups such as the Irish Republican Socialist Party and the Official IRA. There have been inter- and intra-sectarian killings and woundings. The number of deaths since 10th February has beeen 14, and 124 people have been injured. None had been a member of the security forces. In the same period, 16 people have been charged with murder and attempted murder, and another 53 charged with other serious security-type offences.
With regard to detention, the House should know that I have signed no interim custody orders since the cease-fire resumed On 24th February, I announced a programme for the release of a further 80 detainees over the coming weeks. Forty have so far been released. Depending on the security situation, I hope to complete this programme by Easter. At the moment, a total of 122 detainees have been released since the original ceasefire on 22nd December 1974. If all goes well, the total should reach about 160 by Easter. After that I intend that a further release programme should follow, but again related to a genuine and sustained cessation of violence.
I am convinced that now is the time to look at some of the wider implications of the problems that six years of violence have created in Northern Ireland. These 528 problem are a tangled skein I want to make a start on unravelling them. The cease-fire has high-lighted the need for action.
I am especially concerned about young adult offenders, and I believe this view is widely shared throughout the community in Northern Ireland. I have asked Lord Donaldson, one of my Under-Secretaries of State, to take charge of a special inquiry into the problem of young offenders and to report to me as a matter of urgency. He will look at the question of accommodation, including the extent to which it may be possible to use the new and improved prison accommodation which will start to become available later this year for young adult offenders. He will also look at educational facilities and vocational training and examine the question whether a special parole or licensing scheme should be introduced for young offenders.
In the same spirit, I hope soon to bring the House a parole scheme for convicted prisoners along the lines of that which already operates in Great Britain. With regard to the particular question of special category prisoners, the House will wish to discuss this matter further in the context of considering the Gardiner Report.
Policing is vital to the future of Northern Ireland. There can only be one police service. The Government want to achieve a situation where the RUC, accepted and sustained by a law-abiding community, becomes the major organisation for law and order. This is not a role for the Army.
This is not going to be achieved overnight. It does not involve trying to flood the difficult areas with policemen. The plain fact is that the Army will have to carry out some ordinary policing functions in some places for some time to come.
With regard to the control of the police, there is a delicate balance of functions to be achieved between Government— the Home Secretary and Secretary of State for Scotland in Great Britain and myself in Northern Ireland— and local government in the shape of a police authority and the chief constable, who is operationally autonomous. The achievement and maintenance of this relationship is of fundamental importance to the liberty of the citizen.
529 On this basis it may be that the Constitutional Convention will have ideas to contribute to this very difficult question of policing. But it must be made clear, as with the work of the convention as a whole, that a final decision on this will be for this House to make.
There is, too, the question of complaints against the police. Let me say that I believe the existing complaints procedure is being carried out well, but I intend in due course, as is intended in Great Britain, to add in Northern Ireland an independent element into the procedure.
As I said in the House on 14th January, the Government seek a lasting peace, and I also said that a permanent cessation of violence would enable the Army to make a planned, orderly and progressive reduction in its present commitments. This is still my aim. If the security situation permits, further reductions will be made in Army force levels.
I also want to see further relaxations in security so that people can move about more easily. Again, if the situation permits, I would like to bring to an end the searching of pedestrians entering the city centres in Londonderry and Belfast and, before taking such a decision, I would, of course, take into account the views of the people and the traders there.
It is not possible to see the future clearly, but it is my strong personal view that it is wrong to look at the many problems in Northern Ireland as if there were some ready-made textbook solution. What the Government will do is to respond positively to a developing situation. This statement is made on that basis. It is the hope of the Government that those elected to the Constitutional Convention will respond in a similarly positive manner, taking fully into account the views of all the people in Northern Ireland.
§ Mr. Neave
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, while there may be no textbook solutions to the problem in Northern Ireland, his statement on policing is by far the most important part of what he has just said? We agree with him that policing is vital to the future of Northern Ireland. Can he say what steps he proposes to take to secure support for the RUC, which we congratulate on its fine, record, from the more responsible 530 leaders? Does he agree that this is not a matter of political bargaining? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that a more public role for the police authority would be helpful to emphasise that it is being administered by an independent body? What progress has been made in setting up police liaison committees?
§ Mr. Rees
May I first welcome the hon. Gentleman to his Shadow post?
Policing is one of the most important issues in Northern Ireland— some people regard it as the major problem— and there is no doubt that over the past five years the Army has taken the lead in well nigh everything. It is our job to get the position reversed so that the police take the lead.
I do not believe that I can do anything to get support from leaders for the police. It is something that emerges and evolves. It is interesting that in the cease fire the subject of the police and support for the police as a whole becomes a subject of discussion, and I hope that in the convention we shall see it come to fruition.
The police authority is a subtle subject. There are those in Northern Ireland who believe that the police authority runs the police. People in this country know that that is not the case, but it is important to get the relationship right. I do not believe that we have got it right with regard to the police authority, but I have no immediate plans for dealing with that.
If anybody in Northern Ireland has any ideas about liaison committees, I know that the chief constable will be prepared to listen to what he has to say.
§ Mr. Molyneaux
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we appreciate his coming to the House today against medical advice?
May we assure him that there will be widespread support for his clear reiteration of the concept of the RUC as the only police force in the Province? Does he agree that this reassurance is essential if the RUC is to be in a position to assume the functions presently performed by the Army?
Finally, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there will be support for his intention to tackle urgently the grave problem of young adult offenders?
§ Mr. Rees
With regard to the last point about young adult offenders, I am glad that the hon. Gentleman, with his knowledge of Northern Ireland, has raised the matter. The degree to which young people are involved in violence is quite incredible, and the problem will remain with us for generations to come. It is not just a matter of education. This is why I have asked my noble Friend the Under-Secretary of State in the other place to look into the matter. I believe that we have too many young people in prison. We must deal with the problem as quickly as possible because they are attending the university of violence where they learn how to carry on in the future.
I do not want to repeat what I said in my statement about the police. I want to make it clear that the problem of the past five years, whatever its origins, did not just happen. Policing was part of it, and if we all think carefully and use our heads to secure the acceptability of the police over the months and years ahead we shall achieve what is necessary— acceptability by the community as a whole.
§ Mr. Dalyell
What progress is being made in dealing with the admittedly difficult matter of the aftercare of young detainees when they are released from Long Kesh?
§ Mr. Rees
This is a much more difficult question than it might seem on the surface. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State played a part in the setting up of a voluntary organisation last year, and one of the things we find is that many people who have been detained wish to have nothing to do with any organisation which is even remotely connected with the Government. It is a difficult issue. I am advised, however, by people in Northern Ireland who know a great deal about the matter that the important point is to get young people who have got themselves caught up in violence away from prisons and such places. After that, I believe that the education system and the very strong family ties in Northern Ireland, in both communities, will play a major part in rehabilitation.
§ Mr. Thorpe
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we all recognise that the cease-fire is a very fragile plant? In so far as he has told the House of imagina- 532 tive measures to maintain that cease-fire and to improve the political climate, he will receive, and he should receive, the support of the whole House.
§ Mr. Rees
I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. After one year in this job I am well aware, as are other right hon. and hon. Gentlemen, that, despite disagreements, we all get by as a result of a general acceptance of the problem and by the good will of everybody in the House who has views on the matters.
§ Rev. Ian Paisley
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the official IRA has declared an amnesty to come in on a deadline later this week for members of the Irish Republican Socialist Party? Is he aware, too, that a very serious situation is arising in areas where these two forces are shooting it out? Can he take any effective steps to stop this?
Can the right hon. Gentleman indicate to the House when we shall have a debate on the Gardiner Report, as in this context it is a very important report, as I am sure he is aware?
Will the system of parole which the Secretary of State has announced in relation to convicted prisoners apply also in relation to special category prisoners?
§ Mr. Rees
I made it clear earlier that the parole scheme which we shall bring before the House is for convicted prisoners. We need to look at the scheme that is working in this country. It needs probation officers and prison officers who can make evaluations of those concerned. As I understand it, this would not be possible with special category prisoners. I have decided to move ahead on convicted prisoners per se to get the scheme working.
I am looking very carefully with my advisers at the question of the Gardiner Report and all that goes with it. The question of a debate is for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. However, I believe that it would be valuable to have a debate before I reach conclusions on this important report.
It is very difficult to deal with internecine shootings and killings, whether they are between communities or within communities. The police are doing all they can, but the police have a very difficult job when people who one would 533 imagine are on the same side start shooting each other.
§ Mr. McNamara
Is my right hon. Friend aware that many people will welcome the muted optimism contained in his statement realising, as we do, how fragile the peace still is? There are positive elements within the statement.
Will my right hon. Friend inform the House, first, of the number of detainees still in prison and, secondly, what steps he intends to take to try to ensure that sufficient probation officers will be available in a very heavily over-worked and under-valued department in Northern Ireland to ensure that the younger offenders can be properly dealt with? This problem started with youngsters of seven or eight filling petrol bombs in 1969.
§ Mr. Rees
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I hope that we can always justify his description of muted optimism, which is the right approach. There are about 450 people detained. From the figure of 122 released since Christmas, my hon. Friend will see the relative speed with which releases are taking place.
On the question of young people, the whole matter of probation officers is being carefully considered. It would be a mistake to regard the social services in Northern Ireland as a pale imitation of those on this side of the water. They are very good and have some fine people operating in them. I am sure that they will be able to cope with this.
§ Mr. Powell
May I offer the right hon. Gentleman such corroboration as I may of the impression of a continued fall in tension which is implied by his statement and the hope that this will gain a momentum of its own? As the right hon. Gentleman will no doubt wish to make a statement on this subject to the House, may I ask him what he has to say about the serious incident which occurred a day or two ago in Newry 534 relating to the escape of prisoners which is not unrelated to the level and effectiveness of policing?
§ Mr. Rees
I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's first remark about the general feeling in Northern Ireland which is certainly one with which I and all those to whom I have talked in Northern Ireland agree. Let us hope that matters continue in this way.
I am having an investigation made into the recent escape at Newry. The less I say about it at present the better. It was a bad thing to have happened. Twelve people who had been properly sentenced on matters concerning an escape then escaped again. As there is an inquiry into the matter at Newry Court House, I would rather say simply that I am having an inquiry made.
§ Mr. Russell Kerr
Is the Minister aware that there will be a warm welcome in all parts of the House for the statement he has made today, and particularly for the cool-headed and imaginative way in which he and his colleagues in office are discharging their awesome responsibilities?
May I go further and urge my right hon. Friend, however, not to let anybody persuade him to slacken the pace of the release of internees, because in the opinion of a number of us who are considerably experienced in this very puzzling subject this is the one key thing which will expedite the arrival of peace?
§ Mr. Rees
I see our policy in this regard very much as a matter of dealing with things on a day-to-day basis as the situation unfolds. I am not unaware of the great effect that detention has in the community. However, I must bear in mind also that I originally signed the piece of paper which put people inside because of evidence given to me of their involvement in violence. I have a responsibility to the security forces in their very difficult task. I must balance one consideration against the other.
§ Several Hon. Members rose—