HC Deb 03 March 1981 vol 1000 cc131-4
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Humphrey Atkins)

I will, with permission, Mr. Speaker, make a statement on the latest developments in the protests by Republican prisoners in Northern Ireland prisons. On 1 March one of the prisoners at Her Majesty's prison, Maze refused food and declared himself to be on hunger strike. A statement attributed to the prisoners said that the action was being taken, once again, in support of their demand for political status.

Yesterday, the Republican prisoners still taking part in the dirty protest at Maze and Armagh prisons—439 in all—let it be known that they intended to stop fouling their cells. A total of 240 men prisoners have, accordingly, already been moved into clean cells and provided with clean bedding. The rest will be moved as quickly as further cells become available. The 28 women prisoners will all be in clean cells by this evening.

The Government naturally welcome the decision by the prisoners to put an end to the degrading conditions that they have imposed upon themselves. But, in another statement, the prisoners have indicated that their action is being taken in support of demands for changes in the prison regime which would give effect to their demand for political status. In that, they differ from the 80 prisoners who have stopped protesting altogether since the last hunger strike ended on 18 December. That group are now receiving the full range of privileges and facilities that I described in my statement to the House of 4 December, including that of association, and of wearing their own leisure clothing of an approved type, in the evening and at weekends. That regime remains available for all who choose to take advntage of it; nothing has been added to and nothing taken away from my statement of 4 December.

The claim for political status has been rejected in clear terms by the European Commission of Human Rights, by successive Governments, and by both sides of the House. I wish to make it clear once again, in case there is any doubt anywhere about the Government's position, that we shall not give way on the issue of political status under pressure of further protest action, whatever form that takes, and whether it is inside or outside the prisons.

Mr. J. D. Concannon (Mansfield)

We thank the Secretary of State for making the statement and reiterating the Government's oft-stated position. We agree that it is the only sensible course for the House to take, and that it is right to move prisoners into clean cells. We welcome the decision of those prisoners.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the Opposition agree that Maze prison is the newest and most modern prison in the United Kingdom and that for conforming prisoners the regime is the most liberal in the United Kingdom?

Is the right hon. Gentleman further aware that in our opinion there can be no one, including any member of the IRA and the UDA, who does not realise that there can be no going back to special category or special privileges for non-conforming prisoners? It is therefore clear—the actions and reasons of those who came off the dirty protest at the weekend substantiate this—that the further action is another IRA propaganda exercise.

It is our view that the House should in no way assist the IRA in its efforts. While thanking the right hon. Gentleman for his statement outlining the Government's views, we shall not be pushing him to make further statements—in fact, quite the reverse.

Mr. Atkins

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his expression of support from the Opposition Front Bench. I agree that there is no necessity to make repeated statements. The Government's position is clear and must be clear to all involved in any form of protest in the prisons. I confirm that Maze prison is one of the most modern in the United Kingdom and I believe that it compares favourably with any prison anywhere in the world.

Mr. Anthony Fell (Yarmouth)

Is it not a fact that a statement of this sort lends an importance to these criminals which they do not merit?

Mr. Atkins

It is my business to keep the House informed of the Government's position and actions in the part of the United Kingdom for which I have responsibility. The actions being taken are serious. They cause tension and difficulty in the Province and it is right that the House should know precisely where the Government stand.

Mr. James Molyneaux (Antrim, South)

Is the Secretary of State aware that we, too, would prefer to regard this as a once-and-for-all statement? There should be no need for it to be repeated at frequent intervals. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the resentment caused in the past by the publication of daily bulletins on the condition of convicted prisoners, when no corresponding bulletins were issued on the terrorists' victims?

Mr. Atkins

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's support of what we are doing. I take note of his view that this is not something with which I need trouble the House again.

Mr. James Kilfedder (Down, North)

The Secretary of State is to be congratulated on the determined stand that he and the Government have taken. It has forced the Provisional IRA to call off the dirty protest by more than 400 prisoners—terrorists—after a three-year campaign. Can the right hon. Gentleman or the Government do something about certain sections of the news media that are bombarding the public with propaganda issued by the IRA, which, no doubt, will increase as the hunger strike goes on until, perhaps, the man's death, which may lead to further violence?

Mr. Atkins

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he said. The Government have taken a stand and have been supported in that by the House. That has been a great help to us. I do not control the media in Northern Ireland or anywhere else.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the all-important conviction that the Government and the House will not give way on the matter of political status will be greatly strengthened if he is seen to be proceeding to take steps to eliminate the existing political status in Maze prison?

Mr. Atkins

There is nothing that I can add on that point to what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister told the right hon. Gentleman on 15 January.

Mr. John Farr (Harborough)

I thank my right hon. Friend for what he told us, although most of it was in this morning's newspapers. Does he consider that such statements are necessary? They give credence and publicity to the Provisional IRA, without which it would probably fade into obscurity.

Mr. Atkins

I hope that it will fade into obscurity. I believe that it is my business to keep the House informed of what the Government are doing, but I note what my hon. Friend says.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to call those hon. Members who have been trying to catch my eye since the Secretary of State made his statement. We shall then have to move on.

Mr. James A. Dunn (Liverpool, Kirkdale)

Is the Secretary of State aware that his statement will make little contribution of value? What would have made a great contribution would be a full disclosure by the Prime Minister of the discussions that she had on 8 December. That might have been more valuable.

Mr. Atkins

I do not think that the discussions that my right hon. Friend is having with the Taoiseach have anything to do with the hunger strike.

Dr. Brian Mawhinney (Peterborough)

Will my right hon. Friend accept that he will have the support of the House and the Province if he continues stoutly to resist unwarranted demands, whether from Republican or IRA terrorists, reactionary Loyalists or electioneering politicians, whether British or Irish?

Mr. Atkins

What is needed most in Northern Ireland, from all sorts of points of view, is a period of peace and quiet. It is that for which the vast majority in Northern Ireland are longing. I hope very much that it will come about.

Mr. Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight)

May I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and assure him of continued support from the Liberal Bench? Will he confirm that he found the statement by Bishop Daly helpful in this respect, and can the House look for further statements from Church dignitaries in similar vein?

Mr. Atkins

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support, which is valuable to us. I think that the statement made by Bishop Daly yesterday was undoubtedly helpful. Any Church leader or anybody else who lends his weight to persuading those taking this kind of action to give it up is always of value, and I hope that more will be forthcoming.

Mr. Wm. Ross (Londonderry)

As the prison regime in Northern Ireland has already been described as the most liberal in the United Kingdom, will the Secretary of State give an undertaking that there will be no further reforms in Northern Ireland prisons until the rest of the United Kingdom has caught up? Will he undertake afterwards to see that no reforms are carried out in Northern Ireland ahead of the rest of the United Kingdom and that any such further reforms will be made only after a considerable period of preparation and will be announced long in advance of their application?

Mr. Atkins

The question of regimes in prisons in the United Kingdom is clearly something with which we must keep closely in touch in the various parts of the United Kingdom. At the same time, I do not think that it would be right, just because of the actions of one or two, or even a group of individuals, for the Government to cease their efforts to provide the best possible regime in prisons, wherever they are.