HC Deb 29 April 1976 vol 910 cc545-8
13. Mr. Wm. Ross

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, if he has any proposals for strengthening the law relating to membership of illegal organisations; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

By virtue of Section 19 of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1973 it is a criminal offence to belong or profess to belong to a proscribed organisation. The problem in securing convictions is that of evi- dence not a deficiency in the law. I am not satisfied that changes in the rules of evidence would be justified.

Mr. Ross

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that reply. However, is he aware that in view of the continuing level of violence many people in Northern Ireland feel that the law should be strengthened, and strengthened in much the same way as that which prevails in Eire, where there are special criminal courts for dealing with these people? In the case of Martin McGuinness, my constituents believe that such a strengthening of the law is long overdue.

Mr. Rees

I would rather not get involved in individual cases. What matters is the evidence of proof of membership. As I have said in the House previously, if I were to listen to the gossip in Northern Ireland, I should find that the number of people who believe that other people belong to para-military organisations is large; but that does not stand up in a court of law, and quite properly.

The present Government will not introduce special courts. I am not prepared to put the RUC in the position of the Garda. What is done in the South is a matter for the South, in its own circumstances. To put the RUC to giving evidence in court saying "I have reason to believe", would turn the community against the RUC, and that has been one of our major problems in recent years.

Mr. Goodhart

Is the Secretary of State aware of the very deep sense of frustration among all ranks of the security forces about the difficulty of getting effective evidence against men who plan murder of the rank and file? What consideration is he giving to making really large sums of money available for information that would lead to the conviction of these leaders?

Mr. Rees

When I first arrived in Northern Ireland I found that sums as large as £50,000 were available for information, but they were not taken up. Hon. Members must consider the history of informers in the Northern Irish situation. If, as the hon. Gentleman has done, one visits areas and sees painted on walls advice about what will be done to informers, one can appreciate that it is far better to handle matters in the present way now that information is coming. Certainly in recent weeks we are getting higher up the hierarchy in para-military organisations. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. It is the "godfathers" that we should like to have locked up. It is good to catch 16-year-olds firing Armalite rifles, but it is the organisers who are the men we want.

Mr. Watkinson

Does my right hon. Friend propose to take any action in relation to the criminal injuries legislation to prevent damages from being awarded to members of illegal organisations under that legislation?

Mr. Rees

I published a Written Answer yesterday, and I must not get involved in sub judice cases. If my hon. Friend would care to look at that answer and see the details of the legislation as it is, I think that he will find that the involvement point is met. However, on both of the Acts that I have to operate, under which the decisions are taken by the courts and not by me—not by a criminal injuries board but by the courts—certainly I can only say that there are times when decisions are as upsetting to me as they are to hon. Members. But the decisions are taken by the courts. I hope to amend the legislation when I get reports from the working party.

Mr. Neave

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that now that detention is ended, an unspecified number of former detainees are becoming reinvolved in terrorism? For that reason this Question is very important, and the security forces need legal powers to bring people before the courts. Would not one solution be to amend the laws of evidence and the onus of proof with regard to membership of illegal organisations so as to strengthen the whole position of the law in this regard?

Mr. Rees

It is not only ex-detainees who return to violence. It is also ex-prisoners who have been properly sentenced who do so, when they come out. It is not just a matter of ex-detainees. I am looking at this problem. However, unless we can get in Northern Ireland a respect for the law by all the community, we shall not win through. Playing about with the law might sometimes be a means of dealing with our own frustrations, but I am absolutely con- vinced that it is only through the rule of law that we shall win through. Perhaps if it had been nearer the rule of law in the past we should not have had the problems that we have now.