HC Deb 11 July 1996 vol 281 cc555-9
4. Mr. Maginnis

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the security situation in Northern Ireland. [35383]

Sir Patrick Mayhew

We have taken a number of steps to reintroduce security measures since the end of the PIRA ceasefire and as a result of the widespread disorder that we have witnessed in recent days. For instance, we recalled two relocated battalions soon after the end of the ceasefire, but two further battalions will be deployed over the next few days. Other precautionary action has been taken. We are also talking to the Irish Government about further co-operation on security. We are absolutely determined that Northern Ireland should not slip into the abyss of sectarian violence and we shall do everything in our power to protect the hard won gains of the last 22 months.

Mr. Maginnis

Does the Secretary of State accept that the consistent inability of the Chief Constable to consult and liaise at both a professional and a political level has, more than anything else, led to the futile impasse at Drumcree? Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that my party has put proposals on the table which address the long-term interests of both traditions, in terms of parades, and will he assure us that never again will the interests of decent people from either tradition be sacrificed to the machinations of IRA-Sinn Fein activists such as Brendan McKenna?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I believe that I must deal with questions of this character at this moment in a considered and guarded way, as I hope will all right hon. and hon. Members. I do not accept the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question. The question of the march at Portadown and Drumcree has been the subject of more sustained consultation over the past year than any similar event. I reject criticism of the Chief Constable for the decision that he took originally or, in the light of a changing balance of circumstances, for the decision that he has taken today. I am happy to deal further with that aspect in answer to further questions. I acknowledge that the hon. Gentleman's party has put forward constructive proposals, which have been valuable.

As for the latter part of the question, I do not want to get into particularities. Every effort has been made, most notably by the Church leaders in the past 36 hours, to initiate meetings and consultations between representatives of each tradition at local level. Unfortunately, they have failed.

Mr. Hunter

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the events of the past few days have shown once again that communication and dialogue are infinitely preferable to confrontation and hostility, not least in the context of the seasonal marches? Will he confirm that it is his policy to strive to re-create the conditions in which meaningful negotiations can take place between those who are genuinely committed to non-violence and democracy?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I warmly agree with my hon. Friend, and I noted with admiration what he said yesterday about the balance that has to be struck. As the Church leaders have said today, a resolution has to be found, not just for the short-term problems at Drumcree, but for the long-term issue of how the deeply rooted traditions of marches can better be handled in future, perhaps by reference to agreed criteria and guidelines. The Government will consider that closely in the next few days.

Mr. Hume

Given the Secretary of State's correct support and the Prime Minister's correct support for the decision of the Chief Constable on Sunday about the march at Drumcree, and given the events of the past four days—widespread intimidation, attacks on people's homes, businesses and churches, and blockages of airports, harbours, towns and roads—how can the Secretary of State explain today's disgraceful decision to surrender to the people who have been engaged in such activities over the past four days? Can he tell me whether he himself or the Government had any role in that surrender and change of opinion?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

First, I reject the notion of surrender. Secondly, as the hon. Gentleman will perhaps have heard from what the Chief Constable has said publicly this afternoon, no political pressure of any kind was put on the Chief Constable which might have led to his decision today—any more than there was for the decision, which the hon. Gentleman has just applauded, on 6 July. Those are operational matters for the Chief Constable and must remain so.

As for the character of the decision taken today, I urge the hon. Gentleman to reflect that the Public Order (Northern Ireland) Order 1987, which is the legislation for Northern Ireland as approved by Parliament, requires that, whenever the Chief Constable considers whether to exercise his powers to direct the conduct of a march, he should balance one risk against another. There is no doubt that in some circumstances the risk of serious public disorder if a march goes ahead must be balanced against the risk of serious public disorder if it does not. The balance has to be examined and struck in the light of changing circumstances. That balance shifts. In the judgment of the Chief Constable the balance had shifted today and it led to his rescinding the order that he originally made.

Mr. Brazier

In considering the security situation, will my right hon. and learned Friend tell us what progress has been made in finding the bombers who perpetrated the horrendous events in Manchester? Whatever other circumstances may be crucial in achieving security and peace in the long term in Northern Ireland, does he agree that the finding, trying, convicting and punishing of those who have carried out such horrendous attacks on both sides of the Irish channel and both sides of the Irish border must play an important part?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I warmly agree with my hon. Friend. Very intensive investigations, and not unfruitful ones, are taking place and will continue, I am glad to say, in relation to those horrifying and deeply wicked crimes. It is essential that people should be brought to justice who seek to advance their political objectives by means of hideous crimes.

Mr. Stott

Would the Secretary of State care to comment on whether he believes that those of us who are elected to this House, and particularly those people who lead parties in this House, should have regard to the fact that one of Her Majesty's loyal chief constables made a decision purely on operational, policing matters four days ago? Will he join me in reinforcing the message to a particular individual who leads a party that he should have more regard for the Chief Constable's decision than he has had in the past?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I began by imposing upon myself a certain measure of restraint this afternoon. It is important that no one today is in the business of pointing fingers or allocating blame or responsibility. It is absolutely right, as the hon. Gentleman said, that that original decision was taken on operational grounds. We did not hear anything at that time about the Chief Constable's having surrendered to mob rule—at least, I did not hear it myself. Today, that decision has been lifted, again on purely operational grounds. We all ought to recognise the enormously difficult and very lonely role that the Chief Constable has to play, as well as the enormously demanding role that the Royal Ulster Constabulary that he leads with great distinction has played in recent events.

Mr. Wilkinson

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the consistent lesson of the troubles has been that, if efforts to reconcile the minority to the democratic institutions of the British state and the authority of the Crown are taken too far, the majority is alienated? Is not that alienation an even greater danger, inasmuch as the people who are alienated are those who are basically loyal and wish to uphold the state and the rule of law?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I agree with my hon. Friend, who has taken a close interest in our affairs for a long time, that alienation is an ever-present danger. Of course I agree that, almost by definition, taking anything too far is dangerous. We have to encourage parity of esteem and a balancing of the perfectly proper hopes, aspirations and fears of one side of the community against those of its counterparts. That is what we try to do.

Mr. Alton

While I recognise the invidious position of the Chief Constable, does the Secretary of State nevertheless agree that the combination of confrontation and subsequent capitulation is bound to send the wrong signals to the minority community in Northern Ireland, because it undermines respect for the law and the law enforcement agencies? Does he also agree that, in this day and age, for anyone to parade and march through other people's communities is deliberately inflammatory and triumphalistic, stirs up old hatreds and should have no place in a civilised age?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

On the first part of the question, I do not think that the language of capitulation is consistent with the nature of the decision that the Chief Constable has to take. As I have tried to describe, it is a question of balancing risk. The House, by legislating as it has, has recognised that there is always a balance of risk to be made. In those circumstances, to describe it as capitulation today might just as well, I suppose, have led the hon. Gentleman to speak of capitulation on 6 July. It is inappropriate language. It is a striking of a balance in the light of changing circumstances.

On the question of marching, I have already said that the practice is deeply rooted and the issue is enormously difficult. I warmly agree with the Church leaders who have said now and previously that the issue must be addressed. There is common ground, because everyone believes that we must not continue, year after year, going through these tortures.

Mr. Worthington

I fully agree with the Secretary of State that the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Army are put in an impossible situation, year after year, because of marches and parades. Does he share our support for the work that they have done in the past week in impossible circumstances? Will he further join me in supporting those residents of the Garvaghy road and some in the Orange Order who want to negotiate and not force their way to the future? Surely we must now establish an independent commission, supported by all the democratic parties in the House, to find a way to allow peaceful parades which do not seek to intimidate and threaten. Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman now set up that commission?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the tribute that he paid to the RUC and the military, which is well deserved. Equally, I share his tribute to those who have tried, in his striking phrase, to negotiate and not force their way into the future. That has to be the way forward for that uniquely divided community and I am quite certain that it is within their power.

The hon. Gentleman has spoken about a commission, or something of that character, and I agree with the Church leaders and those who speak of the need for an early review—an immediate review—of the way in which we consider such matters. As I have already said, there must be guidance. We shall therefore be looking sympathetically and urgently at some means by which an independent and external eye can be cast upon the matter with a view to making recommendations.

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