HC Deb 08 March 1979 vol 963 cc1467-9
4. Mr. Farr

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what new measures he intends to undertake to counter misleading propaganda about H block, Maze prison.

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. J. D. Concannon)

I realise that the public need to have accurate information about the protest against the refusal of special category status. A detailed memorandum about the protest was recently placed in the library of the House, I have resumed annual general interest visits by Members of Parliament; and I am considering whether there is scope for visits on a wider basis. I shall keep in mind the possibility of further broadsheets on the lines of the one published last month.

Mr. Farr

As the self-inflicted condition of some prisoners has recently gained notoriety, will the Minister initiate a major exercise to ensure that the facts are known at home and abroad? Will he at the same time emphasise the great forbearance of members of the prison staff who have been working under such difficulties?

Mr. Concannon

I thank the hon. Member for the compliment to the prison staff. The prison staff in Northern Ireland have had much to put up with, not only because of that protest but in their work generally. We are working hard to counter the IRA propaganda, and would appreciate help and assistance from any hon. Member.

Miss Maynard

Is not the best way to counteract that propaganda by allowing the Red Cross and a delegation from this House—and not a hand-picked delegation—to go in and have a look?

Mr. Concannon

A joint visit from the House has taken place. I asked the chairman of the Labour Party's Northern Ireland group, if he would go. He is elected by the members of that group. The previous night we stayed in the House until the early hours of the morning arguing the issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central (Mr. McNamara), who can well look after himself, will take those remarks badly.

Mr. Neave

Is the Minister aware that the Secretary of State is greatly to be congratulated on his robust observations in an interview a fortnight ago on "Panorama"? But should not the Government react in future more rapidly to combat malicious statements, especially in the United States of America? Is he prepared to discuss with the Opposition and hon. Members for Northern Ireland in this House joint action to ensure that the United Kingdom's case is fully understood by American and European opinion?

Mr. Concannon

At present much is being done in this field, but, as I said, any help or assistance will be appreciated.

Mr. McNamara

I am grateful for the Minister's compliment that I can look after myself, particularly as I have been looking after him for the past 13 years. But perhaps in many ways the victims of the unhappy situation are not the men in H block or the prison warders, but the relatives of both groups? We should find some way to convince those relatives that the men are being treated properly and fairly as possible in the conditions that they have imposed on themselves. Privilege visits should be allowed for the sake of the relatives, if not the men.

Mr. Concannon

That point emerged when the visit to the Maze occurred. That and other considerations that arose on humanitarian grounds are being considered. But it is a propaganda exercise by the men to regain special status. We must be careful therefore not to weaken in our attitude.