HC Deb 25 July 1991 vol 195 cc1289-98 10.14 am
Mr. Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and South Tyrone)

I am particularly pleased to have this opportunity to speak about the 1990 annual report of the Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. I should first point out that I once served as a special constable in the RUC and presently act as parliamentary adviser to the RUC Federation.

I have, therefore, the greatest affection and admiration for the police in Northern Ireland and nothing I shall say today is intended to detract from the courageous and selfless way in which that service has borne the brunt of 21 years of terrorism. On the contrary, it is intended to highlight the need for a much more realistic approach to the whole problem of policing in an area where the threat is such that every day is a trial not only for the individual policeman but for his family.

Having stated my personal interest in the RUC, I must make it clear that what I am about to say is not motivated by any narrow or sectional interest, but is exclusively in the interests of all the law-abiding people in the community and of Northern Ireland in general.

Year after year, the Chief Constable's report is presented, and for the eight years that I have been an elected Member here I have analysed it with deep concern, because I have seen everything that I believe in and all that I was sent here to represent and uphold eroded by the men of violence. Perhaps in that situation one falls into the trap of believing what one would like to believe. I have on such occasions always looked to the future in the hope that it would be better than the past.

But on 5 July this year it was different. The Chief Constable on this occasion left the long-suffering people of Northern Ireland totally outraged when, after 21 years of terrorism, all he could promise them was: The immediate outlook is grim. We are facing the highest terrorist threat in the last two years. Some may commend his frankness, but finding a Chief Constable reduced to such pessimism caused me to look even more closely than usual at his report.

I could not help but recall the promises which were made in the House in November 1985 by the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland when he told us that the Anglo-Irish Agreement would bring about peace, stability and reconciliation, an end to megaphone diplomacy and better cross-frontier co-operation and extradition. Not one of those promises has been kept. I looked anew at the report and found that it confirmed everything about which I have continued to warn the Government. No one has listened. Will the Minister today listen to the facts produced by the Chief Constable and to other information which I intend to provide?

One must look at what the report says and at what it fails to say. It has many fine words and phrases. It says: United unequivocal condemnation is a powerful weapon in defence of decency and all those values which we, the police and the people, share, cherish and seek to uphold. It also says: The task of bringing terrorists to justice requires determined people of goodwill to come forward and assist the police. Only in this way, together, will we be able to bring an end to the misery which affects our whole community. Those are fine words but we all know that in the prevailing security situation there is no way in which such people of good will can be given any degree of protection if they choose to assist the security forces.

Such is the freedom with which terrorists can operate that contractors supplying the security forces are regularly attacked or killed or forced to withdraw their services. Policemen and women are so vulnerable that for their own protection they are having to move in increasing numbers to live in carefully selected estates. There are more and more large areas where they are being advised not to live since they cannot count on reasonable security there.

Yet the Chief Constable fails to tell us how many members of the service have, because of threat, been forced to move home, and he neglects to even acknowledge the contribution and sacrifices which are being made by those who supply goods and services to the security forces.

Those of us who live in Northern Ireland know that during the past six years in particular, there has been a systematic withdrawal of effective policing in many areas. The Chief Constable of Northern Ireland may deny that there are strictly no-go areas, but everyone knows for certain that there are slow-go areas. Because of the threat, people who live in them cannot expect any immediate police or Army reaction when they are in trouble.

The ordinary police officer is often willing to respond to calls for help, but is forbidden from doing so because of inadequate resources in terms of manpower, military back up, or helicopter availability. The use of helicopters is a key element in the movement of security forces to areas in which the IRA may have placed land mines.

I quote from a letter that I received from a police superintendent to whom I had complained about a lack of response to an incident in a town—not in some remote rural area: I am pleased to note that you have identified that scarce resources was the contributory factor on the occasion under investigation. Any representations you can make to assist in this aspect will be much appreciated. That is the kind of reply that I receive again and again from middle-ranking police officers who are doing their best to give a service to the community, but who must choose between putting at risk of life and limb the men under their command and making an immediate response to members of the public who are in trouble.

How did that tragic and frightening state of affairs come about? It has arisen because Minister after Minister has come to the Dispatch Box to tell the House what he likes to believe, and which he has been told by senior police and military officers and by advisers, who know what the Minister would like to believe. It has been one great con game, and in no respect has it been more deceitful than in the way in which co-operation with the Irish Republic has been portrayed. It is to the shame of every right hon. and hon. Member that he or she has fallen for that sham.

I draw the attention of the House to a few incidents that I have monitored, but they do not reflect the totality of such incidents in my constituency, where there is an interface between Fermanagh and South Tyrone, and between the counties of Donegal, Cavan, Leitrim and Monaghan. They give some idea of what is hidden from the House.

On 27 January 1990, a van stolen in Dublin was used two days later in a bomb attack on a police station at Lisbellaw. On 21 February, a mortar attack was made on Kinawley RUC station, and the three vehicles used were abandoned by the terrorists, who then escaped at the frontier crossing. On 6 June, a gun attack on one of our manned frontier checkpoints was launched from the Republic, from behind the Garda and Irish army cordon. On 25 June, a van stolen in County Monaghan was used in a 400 lb bomb attack on an Army checkpoint.

On 3 September last year, security forces at a cross-frontier position were fired on from the Republic, and on 27 October, a heavy machine gun attack on helicopters was made from the Republic, again from behind a Garda and Irish army cordon. On 23 November, a young man was abducted from Northern Ireland, taken across to the Republic, and there forced to drive a 3,000 lb proxy bomb to an Army checkpoint.

At the beginning of December, another machine gun attack on an Army checkpoint was made from the Republic, and on 27 December, another cross-frontier machine gun attack was launched. On 21 January this year, a constituent of mine, Colin Stephenson—a 63-year-old ex-policeman—was murdered in Brookborough. The car used by the terrorists had been stolen in County Monaghan on 11 December.

On 22 March, there was another cross-frontier shooting, and on 24 March, a sustained machine gun attack was made from the Republic on an Army patrol. On 8 April, a woman was abducted in the Republic and was forced to carry a bomb to Balleek RUC station. On 24 May, a motorcycle stolen in County Monaghan was used later that day in a murder attempt on an RUC inspector. On 3 June, there was an attack on St. Angelo security base. The lorry used and the mortars attached to it had been brought from. County Donegal. On 23 June, a mortar attack was launched from the Republic on one of our Army positions.

Other incidents come to mind, such as the cross-border attack on the home of Lord Caledon, and several attacks on the Moy bridge permanent vehicle checkpoint. All those attacks originated in the Irish Republic, but no one has been made amenable by the Republic's authorities to answer for any of them.

The Chief Constable's report suggests that relationships with the Republic are good. Hooray for relationships. Perhaps one should listen to the words of Deputy Brendan McGahan, a Fine Gael member of the Irish Parliament, following the murder a few days ago of Thomas Oliver, who was abducted in the Republic and shot by the IRA for allegedly passing information to the Garda. Mr. McGahan referred to the IRA killers as "the border untouchables" and said: There are nests of IRA men who are clearly identifiable. The Garda know who they are, but they need evidence. I believe that the whole area"— that is, the Cooley peninsula and the Dundalk area— should become the centre of tremendous attention from the Garda and the Minister for Justice. Deputy McGahan went on to call for internment. I think that he and I are the realists—not the two Governments. We have much in common here.

It is not just at Cooley that the IRA has the upper hand. I draw attention to the absolute freedom with which an IRA unit more than 30 strong is able to wreak havoc and murder in the west of my constituency from County Donegal.

The leader of Fine Gael, Deputy John Bruton, realises the full implications from the point of view of the Irish Republic. He has said: They are attempting to take on the institutions of the state and are offering a direct challenge to the Garda Siochana. This has very severe implications for the security of the state and for the people living in the state. That was the reaction to an isolated IRA killing in the Republic—thankfully not so many killings emanate from within the Republic against citizens of that country. Yet we have had to endure that without remission for 22 years and our Government treat the situation as though it had been happening only for the past two weeks and will be resolved within the next two.

The Chief Constable talks about his satisfaction with the state of co-operation, but I can only believe that he does so to please his political masters and at their instigation. Co-operation is not about two neighbouring police chiefs who get on well together, about the freedom of a few senior officers to meet each other, or about the frequency with which RUC commanders are summoned to the Maryfield establishment to exchange platitudes. Co-operation is about the extent to which the war against terrorism is conducted and that is as ineffective now as it was before the Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed—perhaps more so because there are more constraints, more bureaucracy and less real communication between policemen who have to face terrorists at the coal face.

That is not sour grapes—it is the truth. I challenge the Minister to produce a solitary fact that will contradict what I have said. I challenge him to say that one fact that I have placed in front of him, through my own resources of from the Chief Constable's report, is an error.

As regards the killings, the Chief Constable shows in his report that, from 1981 until 1985, there had been a steady but slow decline in the annual rate. As a result, terrorist deaths fell from 101 in 1981 to 54 in 1985. That figure of 54 refers to deaths connected with the security situation. There were 47 terrorist murders in that year, but let me stick to the chief constable's figures. Since the agreement was signed, the average annual death rate has increased by almost 43 per cent. and the number of shooting incidents has risen from 237 in 1985, by a massive 135 per cent., to 559. I wish that the Secretary of State would stop asking me if that was not attributable to successful gun-running from Libya through the Irish Republic. I should have hoped that co-operation would by now have meant the discovery of more than 10 per cent. of the estimated 150 tonnes imported through the Republic at that time. Why has the Chief Constable failed to tackle that in his report?

If the number of killings has risen, surely one must at least expect a similar increase in successes against terrorists, but that is not so. Despite the massive increase in arms and explosives available to the terrorists there are roughly about the same finds as in 1985. What has changed drastically is the number of people charged with terrorist offences. While an average of around 600 were charged each year from 1981 to 1985, only 380 were charged in 1990. Why has the Chief Constable nothing to say about that figure?

Is it not a fact that such are the political pressures on the Chief Constable that law-abiding citizens are getting a thoroughly bad deal and that he has failed to withstand the unprecedented political interferences from both the Northern Ireland Office and the Republic's Government? Let the Minister tell me the respective numbers and ranks of those who work in complaints and discipline and those who struggle at the coal face in special branch. Do those numbers bear any relevance to the respective size of the problem?

Is it not true that complaints and discipline are largely abused for political and terrorist advantage and that of 4,132 complaints lodged, 55.4 per cent. were withdrawn, 38.5 per cent. were not substantiated, 4.6 per cent. were of such a minor nature that they were informally resolved and only 1.5 per cent. were substantiated? Why has the Chief Constable not commented on the abuse of the system and the resultant waste of police time, not merely affecting those who are investigating but those who too often have to be suspended from duty for long periods while they are investigated? Should he not be asking for some form of redress against those who waste police time in that way?

Why have we not heard from the Chief Constable about the number of security bases which have been made inoperable or ineffective by terrorist activity? How many of his own police stations have been wholly or partially knocked out of action, and the issue of replacement put on the long finger? What is his approach to the systematic destruction of the Birches, Tynan, Loughgall and Benburb and the virtual closure of Moy—all within a 10-mile radius? Why are the public, to whom he appeals for more help, not being told what is to happen? He heads up their police force, not that of any Secretary of State for Northern Ireland of any Foreign Minister of the Republic.

On the question of welfare, let me ask why the health and welfare of the officers merits but a single statistical paragraph plus another which alludes to the computerisation of medical records, when we know that a 13,000-strong police force has a total of 226,652 days lost through sickness? What is the level of nervous disorders, and heart disease, for instance? Where is the concern for officers and their families who suffer similar illnesses, which of course cannot be recorded? The public should know about that.

Why is there no mention of the hundreds of members of the full-time police reserve—some of whom have now served for almost 20 years—who do exactly the same job as regular officers but are still without any pension rights? Should the Chief Constable not be making the public aware that the Government are bad employers in that respect? Is it not important that he should highlight how it is virtually impossible, for security reasons, for a full-time reserve officer to find alternative employment if he leaves the force and how he is obliged to live on social security between the time he retires and the time he qualifies for the ordinary state pension?

The Chief Constable refers to his request for 441 additional regular officers, and welcomes the Police Authority's support for that. He tells us he awaits a response from the Northern Ireland Office. But are those the facts?

As long ago as the spring of 1987, the then Chief Constable, Sir John Hermon, made a detailed case to the authority for a huge increase in the establishment of the RUC, which had been static from 1984. The response from the authority, with the approval of the Secretary of State, was an interim increase of 250 in the establishment of the full-time reserve, pending further consideration of the main bid by Her Majesty's inspectorate, the Police Authority and the Secretary of State.

The main bid was the subject of detailed analysis and discussion with the then Chief Constable by Her Majesty's inspectorate but the matter did not come back to the Police Authority within Sir John's period of command, which ended in May 1989. Shortly after his appointment in the summer of 1989, the new Chief Constable initiated a new manpower review. That resulted in a request to the authority for an increase in establishment of approximately 450 officers. The case had been prepared in accordance with Home Office guidelines and scrutinised by Her Majesty's inspectorate. It was the subject of several intensive discussions between the RUC, HMI and the authority in the autumn of 1990.

Ultimately, the authority was satisfied with the case and forwarded it to the Secretary of State in October or November last year, with its full support. Since then the case seems to have become absolutely bogged down in the bureaucracy of the Northern Ireland Office with the result that, incredibly, the Secretary of State told the House: In the first instance, the Chief Constable made a submission to the Police Authority, which in due course, will come to me. In fairness to him, however, he said almost a moment later: I am considering that request with all the seriousness that it demands."—[Official Report, 11 July 1991; Vol. 194, c. 1071.] But it is highly probable that his first remark was right and that his second was a typical gentlemanly attempt to cover up for the torpidity of the bureaucracy that services him and his Department.

In the context of the abysmal security situation that now prevails, the way in which the matter has been handled is an absolute disgrace. The blame lies fairly and squarely with the Northern Ireland Office and, I am sorry to have to say, with the leadership of the Police Authority which is unfortunately subservient to the patronage of the Northern Ireland Office.

The Chief Constable's report is superficial and fails properly to reflect the true position. Perhaps that has been the norm, but it must change. If we are to have a Government information document, so be it; but let it not be the Chief Constable's report. Let us have something which is no longer hedged about with political considerations. The public do not require a pep talk or a whitewash. They know that they are being daily let down by the Government and what the level of effective security really is.

It is not up to the Chief Constable to act as an apologist for the Northern Ireland Office. He must be accountable to the public through the Police Authority. Of course, one must sympathise with the Chief Constable in this because the Police Authority has not managed to escape the manipulation of the Government. The relationship between the Police Authority and the Chief Constable is unsatisfactory.

The Police Authority was set up in 1970 in order to remove the RUC from political influence. Is it not then anomalous for the Chief Constable of the RUC to be obliged on a regular basis to interface with the Anglo-Irish Conference on matters which are never disclosed to the Police Authority or discussed with it and are cloaked from the public, the majority of whom are opposed to the process, but from whom the Chief Constable expects trust and support?

A series of questions arises from areas of policing in Northern Ireland, not all of which I shall have time to put. They deal with the relationship with the Police Authority and the attitude to it. One wonders about the morale of the RUC at the level of chief superintendent and above, following such a disappointment and calculated slight as was caused by the exclusion of internal candidates from the shortlist when the present Chief Constable was appointed.

There are persistent rumours of difficulties between the Chief Constable and the chairman of the authority. The latter, by the nature of his appointment, is dependent on the support and patronage of the Secretary of State and, as a result, he must be considerably restricted in his independence.

Another matter which causes me great anxiety is that it is alleged that the Chief Constable intends to abolish the three senior assistant chief constable ranks and replace them with a deputy chief constable. I hope that that is not so, because the people who at present occupy those ranks are three of the most experienced, principled and independent police officers—men who are concerned first and foremost with the welfare of those under their command and with the needs of the community.

There are many other questions that I should have liked to ask, such as why the Northern Ireland Office found it important to remove at one fell swoop 11 of 18 members of the Police Authority when in so doing it removed those who presently occupy the positions of chairman and vice-chairman within the four main committees. The new appointees are completely green about Police Authority work and will be immediately pressed into the positions of chairman and vice-chairman in those committees. I cannot believe—I declare myself as an Ulster Unionist in saving so—that there was not some malice behind the way in which those men, two of whom served in the security services and one of whom experienced horrific injuries in giving that service, were removed from the service.

I challenge the Minister today. I have dealt with the facts. Let him deny the facts that I have put before him. I have posed questions on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland, which deserve an answer. I finish as I started by saying that we have 13,000 dedicated police officers in Northern Ireland. With their families, they sacrifice a great deal on behalf of the community. They deserve more and the community deserves more. Let us all hope that we obtain more than we have been given until now.

10.47 am
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Dr. Brian Mawhinney)

I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis) on initiating this debate on an important subject. It is important not only to hon. Members, as he made clear, and to the Government, as I shall make clear, but, as he was right to say, to all people who live in Northern Ireland.

I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman started his speech by paying tribute to the Chief Constable. I echo that tribute. Given the job that all chief constables have to do in the United Kingdom—it is not an easy job in any circumstances, as the House is well aware—there are special difficulties in being Chief Constable of the RUC. I am happy to associate the Government with the tribute that the hon. Gentleman paid to the Chief Constable. I am glad that he paid it because in the rest of his speech there was a degree of robustness about some of his comments which will be studied with care by those to whom they were directed.

I do not dispute the hon. Gentleman's right to express his views or those of his constituents, or to reflect the views of the federation to which he quite properly referred. However, he and I both understand the importance of reflecting those views within a balanced framework, so that we do not create an impression that would be unhelpful to those whom we oppose. We must not create the impression that matters in Northern Ireland are worse than they are, or that we are not encouraged by and proud of what the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the reserve achieve on behalf of the community. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees with those sentiments.

The hon. Gentleman will understand that he took a significant proportion of the time available and there is no way in which I can answer all the points that he raised, but the Government and, I am sure, the Chief Constable will want to read and reflect on his remarks. A number of questions that he raised about the Chief Constable's report are matters for the Chief Constable. Given the strictures in his speech and his remarks about the relationship between the Northern Ireland Office and the Chief Constable, I shall leave the Chief Constable to answer; otherwise, I shall expose myself to even more strictures the next time that the hon. Gentleman makes a speech on that subject.

To suggest that Ministers believe that the security problems of Northern Ireland started two weeks ago and will finish two weeks hence is not a reflection on Ministers but an untypical reflection on the hon. Gentleman, who knows better. He knows the record of the Government's commitment and he also knows, better than most hon. Members, that the security forces and the RUC are not divorced from Government. It is the Secretary of State's responsibility to set security policies. No one argues that the RUC is not operationally independent, but if the hon. Gentleman reads what he has said in Hansard he will see that he has given the impression that he would like the RUC to be almost divorced from Government. The relationship is entirely proper and Ministers are not involved in making operational decisions. Given the tone of the hon. Gentleman's speech, he may take some comfort from that.

The Chief Constable has a responsibility to convey to the people of Northern Ireland how he sees the circumstances at any particular time. As the hon. Gentleman rightly stated, the Chief Constable said that the threat is higher than it has been for the past two years. To extrapolate from that statement, as the hon. Gentleman sought to do, that there had been no improvement over the years and that we could not look forward to a bright future does not do justice to the Chief Constable. The hon. Gentleman knows better than almost any hon. Member that the level of terrorist violence is cyclical—that is not technically the best word, but it ebbs and flows. It is therefore right to recognise the advantages and successes, just as it is appropriate to recognise the difficult times. To chastise the Chief Constable for drawing attention to his honest assessment, which the hon. Gentleman would surely want the people of Northern Ireland to have, is unfortunate.

Although I cannot, off the top of my head, verify that every incident to which the hon. Gentleman referred emanated from the Republic, no one could deny that there have been incidents emanating from across the border. That cannot be denied because it is on public record, so the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that Ministers were trying to protect hon. Members from that knowledge does not stand up. People have committed crimes in Northern Ireland and then gone across the border. It is also a matter of public record that crimes have emanated from inside Northern Ireland and people have gone to ground there having committed those crimes.

The hon. Gentleman's arguments would have been more balanced had he also referred to the Garda's activities in terms of what they positively achieve, as well as expressing legitimate concerns. To the year ending 31 May this year, the Garda recovered 59 weapons, 16,000 rounds of ammunition and 58.2 kg of explosives. That did not just happen. It reflects police work and co-operation across the border between the RUC and the Garda. The hon. Gentleman is asked not only by Ministers but by the Chief Constable to accept that, although security relations across the border can and need to be improved, the relations between the RUC and the Garda are, I am told, very good. They are improving not at a social or professional level but at an operational level, which is the point that the hon. Gentleman sought to make. That is important to us both.

Mr. Maginnis

Will the Minister give way?

Dr. Mawhinney

No, I shall not give way, because the hon. Gentleman spoke for 33 minutes and I have only about 13 minutes in which to respond.

He will also want to join me in thanking the Garda for detecting the largest bomb—I believe that it was found at Raphoe—that has ever been seen in the island of Ireland. Had that bomb made it across the border, the damage that it would have done and the number of lives that it would have taken would have been enormous. It is therefore important that we keep that balance in mind.

A further point that was emphasised by the hon. Gentleman and which deserves a reply was about resources. The hon. Gentleman will have welcomed the fact that the Police Authority budget for this year is £43 million higher than it was last year, which represents a 9 per cent. increase. Any requests from the Police Authority during the year are given careful consideration, but a 9 per cent. increase is not bad. As the hon. Gentleman made play of the past five years, he may be encouraged to know that during that period the Police Authority grant has risen from £380 million to £514 million—a rise of £134 million. Alongside that, as the hon. Gentleman rightly remarks, there is a manpower bid for 239 regular officers and 202 full-time RUC reserves to be appointed and trained over two years. That is considerable additional funding.

The hon. Gentleman also recognised that the Northern Ireland Office has a legitimate responsibility to look at those requests for public expenditure. Naturally, they must be set against other requests for public expenditure, bearing in mind that the defeat of terrorism is our first priority. That process is nearing completion and the Secretary of State hopes soon to be in a position to respond to that request. The resources argument is helped by the fact that civilianisation of the force is proceeding, and that will provide extra police on the ground. It is also helped by the fact that the Chief Constable is pursuing a policy of centralising and looking for economies of scale. Centralising support services will, in turn, free resources to be deployed on the ground. The hon. Gentleman and I agree that that is where manpower resources need to be deployed.

I do not have time to answer all the hon. Gentleman's questions but I want to respond to one point that he made. The security forces and the police are at the heart of the fight against terrorism in Northern Ireland, but they cannot fight by themselves. It must be a community effort. Everyone must feel part of the fight against terrorism and the support for the RUC and the security forces. The hon. Gentleman and I will agree, I hope, that that support is increasing. Intelligence is improving and becoming more frequent. As that continues, the security forces and the RUC, together with the people, will drive back the terrorist threat——

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I apologise for interrupting the Minister, but I understand that 11 o'clock is the time when statement are usually made. I therefore ask whether you have had a request from the Government this morning to make a statement about the pollution of water supplies. As you know, there was a statement earlier this week about an incident that was deemed to be serious and there was criticism of the delay in notifying the public.

Within the past hour, it has come to my attention that an even more serious incident occurred on 26 December last year. It affected my constituents and those of many other hon. Members. Nobody, but nobody, was told anything. The incident has only now come to light through the media.

Since this incident was more serious than the one discussed earlier, should not there be a statement, and should not the Government conduct an inquiry into the incident and into why there has been silence for so long?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)

I am not aware of any requests for a statement on this matter, but I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman's point will have been noted.

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