HC Deb 26 October 1976 vol 918 cc356-68

7.35 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. James A. Dunn)

I beg to move, That the Firearms (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 1976 (S.I., 1976, No. 1341), a copy of which was laid before this House on 18th August, be approved. This Order in Council was made on 17th August 1976 under the procedure provided for in the Northern Ireland Act 1974 whereby, for reasons of urgency, an order can be made without a draft having been approved by Parliament, provided that it is subsequently approved by a resolution of each House within 40 days after it is made, subject to extension for periods of prorogation, adjournment or dissolution for more than four days.

The order increases the maximum penalties on indictment in respect of three offences under the Firearms Act (Northern Ireland) 1969. These are carrying a loaded firearm in a public place, trespassing with a firearm in a building, and possessing a firearm or ammunition in suspicious circumstances.

Right hon. and hon. Members may recall that towards the end of last year the House approved an Order in Council which, among other provisions, revised some of the penalties under the 1969 Act and in doing so brought all the penalties under the Act into line with those which applied in Great Britain. The present amendment of the law doubles the maximum penalties on indictment for the offences mentioned from five years to ten years.

The revision is a recognition of the considerable extent to which the carrying of illegal firearms contributes to the violence in Northern Ireland. For example, the House will be aware of the existence of what have come to be known as the "travelling gunmen" and the criminal and murderous activities in which they engage. When these men are apprehended, often the only offences for which they can be charged and brought before the courts are the offences under the Firearms Act, and it is important that appropriate penalties should be available.

As the House will be aware, it is the Government's policy that terrorists should be proceeded against through the courts. In these circumstances, it is vital that the penalties which the courts can impose should reflect the needs of the situation and constitute an adequate deterrent.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General, speaking on 2nd July 1976 in this House, announced that the Government, having considered the penalties prescribed by the Firearms Act (Northern Ireland) 1969, had concluded that the existing penalties under Section 17—carrying a firearm in a public place—and Section 19A—possessing a firearm or ammunition in suspicious circumstances—were inadequate and should be changed. He added that other increases might be appropriate and were being considered

It was subsequently decided that, since there was an obvious link between the offence of carrying a firearm in a public place—Section 17—and trespassing with a firearm in a building—Section 18(1)—the maximum penalty for the latter offence, which was previously five years, should also be doubled.

In view of the continuing high level of violence involving firearms my right hon. Friend decided to adopt the urgent parliamentary procedure to which I have referred in the making of this order so that the increased penalties could be introduced with the minimum of delay. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will accept that there is an urgent and immediate need for this order. I therefore commend it to the House.

7.40 p.m.

Mr. John Biggs-Davison (Epping Forest)

The order to follow is of the size and scope of a Bill and perhaps hon. Members will want to speak upon it at some length. I do not mean that this is not an important order—clearly, it is most important for public safety in Northern Ireland. However, I do not think that I shall do wrong if my comments on behalf of the official Opposition are brief.

The order has been lucidly explained by the Under-Secretary of State and its necessity and urgency have been made out. We could hardly expect less from the Government since the increase in the remission of sentences announced last year. If gunmen are given a maximum sentence of five years, they can be released after serving two and a half years in prison. The order redresses the balance.

My hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon (Mr. Neave) and other of my hon. Friends have argued from time to time, following Lord Gardiner's Committee, that the institution of a general offence of terrorism could simplify prosecutions and be of assistance in the enforcement of law and order, but the Government have not seen their way to implement the recommendation of the Gardiner Committee. In the absence of such an omnibus charge with a special scale of sentences and a heavy maximum sentence, many gunmen commit the offence specified in Article 3(2). They do so in the knowledge that they can be charged only under the Firearms Act. Indeed, the Under-Secretary said as much.

It is a reasonable prima facie assumption that those acting in the manner prescribed in Article 3(2) are concerned in terrorism or other violence. One may even wonder whether 10 years is sufficient in the anarchy that is Northern Ireland today.

Finally, I ask the hon. Gentleman to give some indication—I know that it is difficult for him to give precise figures—of whether there has been an increase in the number of persons charged under the regulations in recent months. What is the average length of sentence imposed upon those who are convicted? I ask for the assurance that the Government will keep the length of sentences under review. The sentences contained in the order may not prove sufficient. I shall be grateful if the hon. Gentleman takes up those two points.

7.42 p.m.

Mr. McCusker (Armagh)

On behalf of United Ulster Unionists I give a qualified welcome to the order. It is qualified not because we object to the fact that the sentences are being doubled, but because we doubt the order's effectiveness. As the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Biggs-Davison) has said, the order may restore the status quo in some respects. The 50 per cent. virtual automatic remission now granted to convicted terrorists has reduced the sentences of the courts of a few years ago to something that is almost meaningless. However, as the Under-Secretary of State said, the order has been introduced because the Government consider that its provisions will be an adequate deterrent. I have seriously to question that judgment.

Would the murderers who entered my constituency two weeks ago have been deterred by the knowledge that they might have been sentenced to a 10-year sentence if they were caught? They drove to what would have been considered a fairly safe area in Annaghmore in County Armagh armed with the most sophisticated eastern European rifles, not revolvers that might easily have been concealed. They murdered one man and wounded his 18-year-old son. In fact, the son died on Sunday, so they murdered two men.

Would the 10-year sentence have caused concern to the murderer who, three hours ago, walked into a supermarket on the main shopping street in Armagh city and murdered a member of the Ulster Defence Regiment in broad daylight in front of other customers? Would it have caused him to prick up his ears? Would it have caused him to think before he committed the offence? I have to say that I doubt whether it would have had that effect.

I doubt the effectiveness of the order. In some respects we are putting the cart before the horse. The persons with whom we are dealing will be deterred only if they feel that they will suffer as a consequence. It will be a deterrent only if there is evidence that those who commit these crimes will be brought before the courts and sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment.

I refer the House to the 100 murders—there must have been 100—that have occurred in my constituency over the past year. They were committed by people carrying loaded firearms in public places. To my recollection not one of them has been brought to justice this year. Not one of them is likely to suffer the penalty that he would have incurred if he had been caught before he perpetrated such foul deeds.

Mr. Wilson was murdered today, a member of the Ulster Defence Regiment. I have no doubt that one of the reasons for his murder was his membership of the UDR. However, two or three years ago his wife was brave enough to go into court and give evidence against IRA men. Those men were subsequently sentenced. The IRA threatened revenge against the family, and no doubt it exacted it today.

Perhaps we should be considering how we can encourage and protect public-spirited people who are prepared to go into court to give evidence. Perhaps that would be a more positive approach in the fight against terrorism than introducing an order to double the sentences. Those are the questions that I must ask myself. Is it not more important that the Government consider all the events leading up to sentencing than only the sentences? Should we not be considering how we can improve the possibility of the police being able to arrest suspects, obtain evidence, get convictions and get convicted persons put away for 10 years before we concern ourselves with a sentence of 10 years?

I hope that the thousands of people who marched for peace in Armagh a fortnight ago will realise that marching is not enough. It is necessary to work for peace, and part of that work is telling the security forces the name of the murderer who this afternoon committed his foul deed in broad daylight. Someone is harbouring him tonight. Peace will come to Armagh only when the people have the courage to produce him and have him properly dealt with.

We welcome the order as a partial step and a staggered attempt to do something. However, I fear that the day may come when the penalty for these offences may be even more Draconian than those now suggested. I hope that the day will never come when we have to do what was done in the Republic in the 1920s when people were put against a wall and shot when found in illegal possession of a firearm. If the anarchy continues which now prevails in my constituency and which has prevailed for 12 months, that day may not be far off. I hope that it will never come and I hope that the order will do something to prevent its coming, but I have grave reservations.

7.49 p.m.

Mr. Clement Freud (Isle of Ely)

The incidence of bombing and sabotage increased in 1976 over the 1975 figures. I know that the Minister will give us the figures in his own good time.

The recent flurry of armed activity by the Provisionals is a clear sign of their desperation in the face of the peace campaign. The security forces have had increasing success in the tracking down and arresting of IRA personnel, as well as the discovery of equipment. It is vital that we should build on this success. We must produce a situation of calm and general security within Northern Ireland so that the essential political discussions can resume with some hope of success. That cannot be done if the participants in such discussions are at the mercy of gunmen.

Our basic support for the Government's policy for the role of the security forces must not blind us to the importance of establishing good community relations.

It is unfortunate, to say the least, that there have been some incidents recently in which the Army has been involved and which have not helped the peace movement. I hope that there will be a full investigation into the recent case which revealed that original Army evidence was false and resulted in wrongful imprisonment. Nothing could be more guaranteed to ensure that the IRA maintains its support than misbehaviour by any section of the security forces.

We have witnessed the burgeoning of the peace movement, and it should be placed on record that the peace movement has displayed amazing courage and tenacity in resisting intimidation and brutality by the terrorists. All people in Ireland must hope that the indiscriminate use of violence will be resisted, for meaningful political progress cannot be made without some peace and tranquility within the area, and, most importantly, that British forces will remain there until such time as peace reigns again.

In this context the Liberals support the order.

7.52 p.m.

Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)

My hon. Friend the Member for Armagh (Mr. McCusker) poured a bucket of cold water down our spines. He brought home to us the fact that Northern Ireland is not at this time worried about political dialogue, but about people being enabled to live.

The hon. Member for the Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud), as spokesman for the Liberal Party, must acquaint himself with the true situation in Northern Ireland, where people are in desperation to live their lives. The sooner security reaches the stage where those people are allowed to do so, the better. Therefore it is useless to talk about some kind of political settlement unless those conditions are established.

There is only one way by which one can have true democracy, and that is by guaranteeing citizens their lives so that no man speaks under threat of intimidation. At present, alas, that is not the situation in Northern Ireland.

I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State knows the situation, because he has been in Northern Ireland for some considerable time. I am sure that he is aware of the feelings of the ordinary people of Northern Ireland. It is all very well for the Liberal spokesman to hail certain successes by the Army and the police, but it is a startling and terrible fact that in the constituency of Armagh two dastardly murders have recently taken place. I refer to the murder in Tullyvallen and that at Kinsgmills, Bess-brook. Nobody has yet been charged with committing those dastardly deeds. My hon. Friend has already told the House that 100 murders have been committed in his area and as yet nobody has been charged with any offence in relation to those matters. These are the matters that concern us when debating this order.

The Liberal spokesman should have made clear that those who attack the so-called peace marchers are not from the Protestant side. They come from their own religious side of the fence.

Accusations have been made against members of the British Army. It should be pointed out that in the case referred to by the hon. Member for the Isle of Ely some evidence given in court was contradicted by later evidence. Indeed, the person who gave evidence had already been charged with an offence, had been court-martialled and dishonourably discharged from the Army. If that evidence had been put forward from a witness of good standing in the British Army, one would have given it more credence. The judge gave the benefit of the doubt in that case.

We feel that justice must be upheld. We certainly feel that British justice in Northern Ireland will gain when the benefit of the doubt is given in a particular case. But let us not take the view because one person's evidence is contradicted by other evidence that the original evidence should be regarded as being the absolute truth and the other as falsehood. We must get the balance right.

Will the Minister say whether in firearms offences the onus of proof is on the accused or whether it is for the Crown to prove the case against the accused? If the onus is on the accused, the grip of the law on the individual is tightened.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Armagh that the fact that we now have in these provisions a 10-year sentence will not alter the situation a great deal. Will the Minister consider the imposition of mandatory sentences, in other words, a fixed sentence in respect of a person who is found guilty? A mandatory sentence may well provide a greater deterrent than a sentence up to a maximum of 10 years.

I agree with my hon. Friend that we should be living in cloud-cuckoo land if we thought that this order would be a great deterrent to men who are engaged in murder in Northern Ireland. Nothing will stop those men in their determination to inflict ravages on the community until this House is prepared to take the ultimate into its hands and say that a person who commits a capital crime should suffer capital punishment.

7.58 p.m.

Mr. Dunn

I hope that I shall be able to deal briefly with all the points raised in this short debate.

I hope that the hon. Member for Armagh (Mr. McCusker) will convey to the family of Mr. Wilson our sympathy and condolences in the tragedy that has befallen them, as on other occasions to the many other families who have been similarly bereaved. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and his colleagues in the Northern Ireland Office wish to share in the sympathies extended to the Wilson family in their hour of need.

I shall try to deal with observations briefly, although not necessarily in the order raised. It is always difficult to talk about new law in a setting where tragedy occurs in the context of Northern Ireland, but this evening we are dealing with the penalties for the possession of firearms. Therefore, if I do not take up the theme mentioned by the hon. Member for Armagh it is not because I do not understand his feelings or the problems that confront his constituents and others in the Province, but because I wish to confine my remarks to the order before the House. If only we could apprehend all those who carry firearms by imposing a sufficient deterrent penalty, the incidence of murder and maiming would be seriously diminished.

We are in the difficulty that we are trying to deal with firearms here and not with the other weapons of terrorism. It is against that setting that I answer his point. I agree with him that if help and support for the security forces were given and information made available about those who perpetrate such offences against the community and the security of the individual, it would be to the advantage of the Province as a whole and would bring peace much sooner than is apparent in the circumstances confronting us today.

The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Biggs-Davison) asked me about the number of people charged. Statistics are not easy to provide in great detail, but 672 persons were charged in 1975 under the relevant sections and in the same year 593 persons were convicted. The hon. Member will appreciate that there is always a time lag between the charge being made, the court hearing and the eventual conviction. Between January and June this year the comparable figures were 307 persons charged and 237 convicted. There has been a great surge forward in preparing the documentation necessary for charging, and more convictions will certainly emerge. The success rate of the RUC is very marked in this regard.

On the question of the review of sentences, the Attorney-General indicated in a previous debate that he would keep this matter constantly under review and recommend an increase in sentencing where this would be of immediate help to the security forces and the police. However, I must say that one of the grave problems confronting the security forces in the province is getting sufficient evidence to procure a conviction. It is in that area that we need to do much more work. I am sure that all those in this House who are involved in the situation will help to secure that objective.

The Chief Constable is concentrating all his efforts on improving the ability of the force to detect those engaged in terrorism. He is trying with reorganisation to build up sufficient active preparation of the documents required to take the cases into court so that convictions can be obtained.

So far this year 87 persons have been charged with murder. That figure does not relate to the charges I read out about carrying firearms.

Mr. Freud

What percentage of all murders committed does that figure of 87 represent?

Mr. Dunn

I am in some difficulty here. So many murders are committed that I could not possibly say without knowing the time scale for which the hon. Member wishes to make the comparison. If he will let me know, I will write to him.

Mr. Freud

The period I have in mind was the period during which the 87 were apprehended for murder.

Mr. Dunn

I will write to the hon. Member and give him these facts. I cannot take such statistics out of the top of my head.

The hon. Member for the Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud) talked about improving community relations as part of the ongoing exercise to deal with the problem of carrying firearms. He suggested that we should encourage those people with information to give it to the security forces, or at least to have sufficient anxiety and concern so that when they find people carrying firearms they will, by some method, make the information available to the security forces and assist in acquiring the necessary facts to charge them. I agree with him about that.

He will appreciate that there are difficulties about giving any answers to his other questions because investigations and inquiries are being undertaken at present and it would be wrong for me to pass any opinion at this stage. I shall draw the attention of my right hon. Friend to what has been said.

The hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) asked me a question of fundamental importance to the present situation. If a person is charged with one of these offences and claims a defence of reasonable excuse, the onus is on him to demonstrate that reasonable excuse. However, I believe that uppermost in all our minds is the fundamental principle of English law—that in the main the onus of guilt rests on the prosecution. There are circumstances in which that principle would have to be regarded if there were claims from an individual that he was carrying such arms under intimidation or with reasonable excuse. There would be great difficulties. I shall draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the point.

There are many difficulties in the way of introducing mandatory sentences as the hon. Member for Antrim, North has suggested. In jurisprudence it is always the view of those who make representations and are consulted that each case must be considered on its merits. What we do is legislate for a range of sentencing which is available to the court, taking account of all considerations and circumstances of merit in each individual case, and any disadvantages which might occur for the presentation of the prosecution, or the case for the defence. It would be alien to general practice of this House to legislate for mandatory sentences. There would be grave difficulties. However once again, I shall draw this matter to the attention of both my right hon. Friend and my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, Central)

Before my hon. Friend sits down—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Gentleman has already sat down.

8.9 p.m.

Mr. McNamara

I thought that I had caught my hon. Friend suspended in mid-air.

Mandatory sentencing has a most unhappy history in the Six Counties. It caused no end of trouble and difficulty for the police. There were many cases where the law was got around because the police did not always want to bring about the mandatory sentences in cases where there was obvious guilt but mitigating circumstances. With serious criminal offences it is essential that each case should be looked at on its individual merits.

8.10 p.m.

Mr. F. P. Crowder (Ruislip-Northwood)

I have a question for the Minister to which I ought to know the answer, and I apologise for not knowing it. In this country a person who is sentenced to, say, 12 years' imprisonment and who behaves himself gets a remission of one third of his sentence. A further consideration is that he can go before the Parole Board. Do those provisions exist in Northern Ireland?

8.11 p.m.

Mr. Dunn

With the leave of the House I shall answer the last question first. We in Northern Ireland do not have a system similar to that described by the hon. and learned Member.

Mr. Crowder

Is there a parole board?

Mr. Dunn

No, the system is entirely different.

I turn now to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central (Mr. McNamara). I must tell him that each and every case must be considered on its merits. I know of the difficulties which arose with mandatory sentences in the past. I know the problems these caused in individual circumstances. Concern was expressed by those who had to apprehend and charge offenders who were covered by this code. Let me say merely that when any hon. Member brings up a point of fundamental importance I can confirm that such matters will be drawn to the attention of the Secretary of State and of my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General who are better versed and more experienced in them than I.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Firearms (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 1976 (S.I., 1976, No. 1341), a copy of which was laid before this House on 18th August, be approved.

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