HL Deb 09 April 1974 vol 350 cc1133-44

2.50 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question of which I have given Private Notice; namely, To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will make a Statement on recent events in Northern Ireland.


My Lords, last week my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland made a major Statement in the other place, when this House was not sitting, so it was not repeated here. There was a major debate also in the other place on matters in Northern Ireland. As things happen thick and fast, we welcome the opportunity to make a Statement, and with your Lordships' permission it will not be quite as brief as Answers to Private Notice Questions usually are.

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government's policy on Northern Ireland rests, like that of its predecessors, on the twin objectives of political progress and a continued reduction in violence.

To take security first, your Lordships will know that the terrorists have tried to deflect Her Majesty's Government from their policies by stepping up their campaign of violence in Northern Ireland. They have brutally murdered a number of people; they have callously demolished shops upon which people rely for their daily existence; and, most recently, they have terrorised innocent citizens and their families to compel their help in planting bombs. The Government remain determined to deal with every form of violence. Last week the security forces conducted several large-scale operations aimed at defeating terrorism. Many of the results of such operations, of course, cannot be disclosed. But your Lordships will be interested to know, by way of an example, that last Friday a vehicle check-point on the M1 motorway was responsible for the capture of a hijacked car which contained a home-made mortar, ten homemade mortar bombs and 100 lb. of explosives. On the same day at the opposite end of the Province, in Strabane, the driver of a van was arrested after it had been searched at a vehicle checkpoint and had been found to have two bombs inside.

My Lords, the Army in Northern Ireland has been reinforced for these operations by two companies flown out from Great Britain. The way in which the forces are deployed in Northern Ireland, and reinforcements made available from other places, show the flexible posture which the Government and the security forces intend to maintain. The decision to withdraw one unit from the Londonderry area is consistent with this approach; later this year it may be possible, as a result of this flexible approach, to make further limited reductions in the number of troops actually stationed in Northern Ireland. This policy is also an indication of the Government's confidence in the Royal Ulster Constabulary. It is Her Majesty's Government's policy that there should be a progressive increase in the role of the police in Northern Ireland. Success depends upon the response from the community at large in assisting the security forces. At the same time, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Secretary of State for Defence have called for a security review—a fresh look at the role of the Army in Northern Ireland in the towns, in rural areas and on the Border.

My right honourable friend, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, also announced that the Chief Constable had, after full consultation with the Police Authority, decided to reorganise the operational command structure of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. I stress that this change is of a purely operational nature, and strengthens the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Some of your Lordships may know that police operations in the Belfast area have for some years been under the command of an Assistant Chief Constable. A similar arrangement is now being made for areas outside Belfast, one Assistant Chief Constable taking charge of a region broadly based on Londonderry, and a third Assistant Chief Constable taking command of the Border areas.

In addition—and here I come to matters which bridge both the security and political side of the Government's objectives—the police authority is to be reconstituted, an all-Party committee on policing is to be set up in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, is considering the formation of the Police Liaison Committees, which were foreshadowed in the White Paper. The Government were glad to note the Statement last week by the Northen Ireland Executive expressing their support for normal civilian policing in Northern Ireland.

I now come to detention. Detention is a practice which no Government would unnecessarily retain; but the force of circumstances in Northern Ireland must also be recognised. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland re-emphasised last week the Government's support for the statement in the Sunningdale communiqué which was that the British Government reaffirmed their "firm commitment to bring detention to an end in Northern Ireland for all sections of the community as soon as the security situation permits".

As to the long-term problem of the provisions and procedures required to deal with terrorism, the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, has accepted the invitation of my right honourable friend, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to chair a Committee: To consider what provisions and powers, consistent to the maximum extent practicable in the circumstances with the preservation of civil liberties and human rights, are required to deal with terrorism and subversion in Northern Ireland, including provisions for the administration of justice, and to examine the working of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1973; and to make recommendations. Her Majesty's Government are grateful to the noble Lord for undertaking this task; but legislation based upon his report could not possibly be passed into law before July, when the relevant provisions in the Emergency Provisions Act run out. The Government are not prepared to leave the security forces without any cover in the intervening period, and the Government will, therefore at the appropriate time invite the support of your Lordships' House for an Order extending the duration of the Emergency Provisions Act for a further period.

Turning again to the more immediate future, we shall try a fresh approach to the release of detainees, a fresh approach in which we shall be committing members of the Northern Ireland Executive responsible for social services departments so that their resources and expertise can be brought to bear. Those who will be released will have great problems becoming assimilated in their home communities, and it is to assist them that the Secretary of State is also considering whether they can be assigned to sponsors in their home communities who will undertake at least a measure of responsibility for them. Her Majesty's Government hope that such a scheme might be able to do something to help the community restore itself; but I must reiterate the stern warning given by the Secretary of State—if any person who is released does return to violence, there will be no hesitation in returning him to detention.

The Prime Minister and the Taoiseach agreed at their meeting last Friday that the general political situation and the security situation in Northern Ireland were interrelated. Their joint view was that the elimination of violence was a primary aim in the efforts to establish stable, acceptable institutions with which the community could identify, and they agreed to intensify measures against violence. There have been a series of meetings between senior officers of the Garda and the Royal Ulster Constabulary which will lead to closer co-operation between the forces of law and order in both parts of Northern Ireland. Co-operation is already bearing fruit. For example, on April 5, the same date as the Army successes, two gunmen inside the Irish Republic opened fire on the security forces near Clady; fire returned by the security forces pinned down the gunmen until an Irish Army patrol was able to get to the scene to arrest these men. Both have subsequently been charged and are to appear in court.

The Prime Minister and the Taoiseach also discussed the Sunningdale settlement, which was signed on behalf of the United Kingdom by the previous Administration, and agreed that in order to ensure the early formal signing of that agreement, the necessary preparatory work should be completed as soon as possible. In particular, the recommendations of the Law Enforcement Commission on the most practical and effective means of dealing with fugitives will be of especial importance.

That is a gesture towards the future. In the meantime there have been significant political achievements. The Northern Ireland Executive, which was established on January 1 of this year, continues to play its part as the devolved Government in Northern Ireland; and the Northern Ireland Assembly, which was given legislative powers on January I this year, has embarked on its programme of legislation. The work of the Executive, to which I pay tribute, has been solid, sensible and quietly impressive. These people, who are bearing the heat and burden of the day, deserve and will get our fullest backing. The previous Administration were striving for a political solution to the age-long problem of Northern Ireland. I assure the House that the new Administration are firmly committed to the same policy.

3.0 p.m.


My Lords, the Government's reply to this Private Notice Question, for which I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, is given against a background of continuing violence in Northern Ireland, which the noble Lord reminded the House about at the beginning of this reply. Of course it was only last night that the shopping centre of Armagh (a city of which I think any country could be justly proud) was completely destroyed. I listened carefully to what the noble Lord said about the apprehending of violent men as they were in transit outside towns. Before we leave this subject I wonder whether the noble Lord has anything he would like to add about town centre security. I know that this is not a simple matter because many towns are reluctant to have their town centres cordoned off and guarded, and I realise also that the security forces have to depend quite a lot on individual precautions taken by individual shop and business owners.

It is just over three months since the Northern Ireland Executive took up its responsibilities under Mr. Brian Faulkner. I understand that those Parties which refused to join in sharing power are still not representing an Opposition in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Am I correct in this assumption? Are the Democratic Unionist Party, the Vanguard Unionist Party, and the official Ulster Unionist Party represented on the Consultative Committees to each Northern Ireland Department for which Section 25 of the Constitution Act provided? If they are, do they participate in the meetings of those Committees?

I would submit to the House that those who are accustomed to assert that the Army is being held back in its operations by political decisions should turn their minds to considering the political and legal actions which could best support military operations. That would be a more constructive approach, and an approach to support the Army in the incredibly difficult operations that it is undertaking in Northern Ireland. I know that some of my noble friends are especially concerned to see how the Sunningdale Agreement can help to reduce the violence in Northern Ireland. I realise that it is too early for the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, to be able to tell the House what recommendations the Law Enforcement Commission is going to make to deal with terrorists on both sides of the Border, but may I ask when the Commission's report is likely to be received? May I express the hope that when it is received, if a Statement is made in another place that Statement will be repeated in your Lordships' House?

As regards cross-Border security, may I say that I listened with the greatest interest to what the noble Lord said about the operation at Clady Bridge. I also listened to what he said about cooperation at high level between security forces. Are the Government also satisfied at the moment that that co-operation runs all the way down the ranks of those who are serving in the police and the Army on both sides of the Border? The fact that the Secretary of State has decided to implement the decision which was taken by my right honourable friend Mr. Francis Pym before the General Election to set up an all-Party Committee from the Assembly to study how best to introduce effective policing in all parts of Northern Ireland is welcomed on this side of the House.

Have the Government any plan for increasing recruitment into the R.U.C.? It is crucial in helping to identify communities with the police and with the incredibly difficult work which the R.U.C. is having to do. This identity of interests surely must be achieved for a return to normal policing in all areas to be effected, a step on which so much depends. Despite the care that was taken in the Emergency Provisions Act to try to ensure that detention is not a political act of Executive Government, none the less paragraph 18 of the Sunningdale communiqué pledged Her Majesty's Government to work towards the ending of detention, as the noble Lord quoted, as soon as the security situation permits.

I know that noble Lords on this side of the House will wish the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, success in the task that he has undertaken. The noble and learned Lord played an important part in regard to the Report of the Committee on interrogation procedures, under the late noble and learned Lord, Lord Parker of Waddington; so the noble and learned Lord is familiar with many things in Northern Ireland. May I suggest to the Government that it would be a disservice—which certainly the noble Lord's Answer did not suggest—if there were gained any impression that there is some simple alternative to the problem which confronted the noble and learned Lord, Lord Diplock, and his Committee, and that there is some simple alternative to the conclusions which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Diplock, reached in 1972. May I ask the noble Lord—


My Lords, would the noble Lord give way for a moment?


My Lords—


Order, order!


My Lords, I suspect that one or other of my noble friends is out of order. I know that we are in some difficulty, and I am not going to put blame either on my noble friend the Minister or the noble Lord opposite, but the Answer was a very long one. I think the House will understand that the noble Lord opposite would wish to make a full questioning review of that statement, but I hope that we can very shortly bring this discussion to an end and move to other Business. Having said that, I hope that the House will recognise the difficulty of both Front Benches on this occasion.


My Lords, I must apologise to the House. I think it is certainly I who am out of order. I have two questions that I should like to ask the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson. Th first—and this is an important question—concerns the work that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, is going to do. Have the Government any record of the numbers of those accused before single judge courts for scheduled offences compared with the number of similar cases brought to trial before the passing of the Emergency Provisions Act? The last question that I should like to ask concerns the phased release of detainees to be assigned to sponsors. My noble friend Lord Carrington is listening carefully to what is said. This is a method of fulfilling paragraph 18 of the Sunning-dale Communiqué. Do the Government believe that the social services, including voluntary organisations in Northern Ireland, are going to be numerous enough in manpower for this plan to succeed? I think that release and after-care were particular interests of the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, before he went to Northern Ireland, and I ask this question because presumably it will be necessary to have some effective liaison between all who are concerned with the release of individual detainees.

For all those who live or are serving in Northern Ireland this is a time of very great anxiety. From this side of the House we have tried to do everything in our power to restore peace to this part of the United Kingdom. Despite the difficulties, the noble Lord's reply to-day makes it clear that this remains the policy of Her Majesty's Government.


My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, would he please appreciate that none of us wants to deride the serious attention that he has given to this problem. It is obvious to the entire House that he has spent a long time thinking out these cogent and necessary problems and questions, but may I ask him—


My Lords, I fear that we are getting into deep difficulties. This is a Private Notice Question, which my noble friend has answered. The Opposition Front Bench have exercised their right of comment and question. We are now moving into the realm of debate. I think that this would be undesirable. I suggest that we adopt our previous and usual practice of hearing from the Liberal Benches, I hope briefly, and then my noble friend will reply. Then, if further questions are thought to be necessary, I hope that the House will put them as briefly as possible, recognising that we have some heavy legislation before us.

3.8 p.m.


My Lords, may I assure the noble Lord the Leader of the House that I shall be very brief? I should like from these Benches to thank the noble Lord for this long and important Statement. I am not in a position to comment upon it in any detail, and I fully realise the difficulties of the Government Front Bench in this matter. I welcome all the efforts that are obviously being made to eliminate violence as a primary aim in the efforts to establish an environment in which members of the community can live without being subjected to these shocking outrages. We wish the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, well in the great efforts that he will be making in his new appointment.

3.10 p.m.


My Lords, I think it would suit the mood of the House if I wrote to the noble Lord about a number of the smaller points he has raised, and dealt with only one or two of the main ones. The security of town centres is obviously extremely important and is under constant review. Only last Saturday I discussed the shutting of different streets around Belfast, which the Officer Commanding is at the moment looking into. I do not think there is anything to add, except to say that the rights of the traders have to be considered all the time. I believe the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, said that he hoped we did not think there was a simple alternative to Diplock. The answer is that we do not think there is a simple alternative to Diplock. It will take all the skill of my noble and learned friend Lord Gardiner to devise an answer, and we wish him every luck in doing so. The noble Lord also asked some questions about numbers. I do not have the numbers and I will write to him about them.

Lastly, I want to say one word about the sponsorship scheme which is being considered. It is not being introduced just like that. My right honourable friend's view is that there will be some people to whom such assistance would be helpful. Certainly, people who have been shut up for quite a long time, wherever they come from, need a home, they need work and they need friends; and one can at least see that that side is properly looked after. It may be that the idea will be useful, it may be that it will not be very useful, and we make no prophecy about it. That is all I shall say now, and I will write fully to the noble Lord.


My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether there is some contradiction between his Statement this afternoon, in the course of which he said that the position of our forces in Ulster is under review, and the Statement made on this matter by my right honourable friend in another place to the effect that it is not the intention of the Government to withdraw the troops at all, and that it is not under consideration? Is my noble friend aware that some of us are becoming very alarmed and seriously disturbed about the unfortunate position in which our forces are placed in Ulster? Will he take note of the fact that, in the course of question and answer this afternoon on the position of our troops in Ulster when they commit some alleged offence, the reply of my noble friend Lord Brayley, who was speaking on behalf of the Army, was that they were regarded as not being on active service and that they were responsible for law and order? If that is the position, has not the time arrived when the matter of enforcing law and order should be left to the Irish Constabulary and the various police forces, and should not be imposed on men who never enlisted in the Army for the purpose of indulging in this affair in Ulster?


My Lords, any question on this subject from my noble friend must be treated very seriously by all of us. There has been no suggestion of a withdrawal of troops as such. There has been an indication of a limited withdrawal of, I think, about 500 men from Londonderry and a suggestion that that may be followed by further very limited withdrawals. I think everybody concerned with Northern Ireland is fully aware of the feeling which my noble friend has expressed and I can tell the House that, although when one goes around and talks to the men on the ground one finds that their morale is absolutely superb, one wishes very much that they were not there, being asked to do what they are being asked to do. But, quite honestly, one cannot suddenly take away the troops and hand the job over to the police. What we are trying to do, and what my right honourable friend indicated in his Statement last week he is taking steps to do, is to begin to try, and that is really as far as we can go at the moment.


My Lords, I wonder whether I may ask the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, a question about releasing detainees. Of course everybody understands that this is a most difficult problem and nobody wants to continue detention any longer than is absolutely necessary. One also understands the political necessity and the rightness of releasing people if it is possible to do so. But will the noble Lord bear in mind that he and the Government must be very careful about the criteria under which these detainees are released, and about the arrangements for them afterwards? Otherwise it may be found that the morale of the Army in Northern Ireland suffers very considerably. We must all remember that, generally speaking, these detainees have been arrested or apprehended by the Army under conditions of great danger to the troops, and if they see them released under conditions in which they can do again what they were arrested for, there really will be very considerable difficulty.

The second question which I should like to ask the noble Lord—and I shall understand why he may not be able to answer it, since it does not immediately arise from his Statement—is whether he has any figures of how many of those detainees who have been released have gone back to terrorism, and how many have been re-arrested? If he does not have those figures now, I think it would be useful for the House to have them at some time.


My Lords, let me first answer the second question. I do not have accurate figures. I have rough figures which I should prefer not to quote and would rather write to the noble Lord. The number that is identifiable is very low, but none of us is entirely happy about this aspect. As regards the first part of the noble Lord's question, I could not be more acutely aware of the point he has made. Let me just repeat the words of the Sunningdale communiqué, which my right honourable friend quoted, which were: … their firm commitment to bring detention to an end in Northern Ireland for all sections of the community as soon as the security situation permits". So long as people are going out hijacking lorries and holding guns to a man's wife and telling him to drive on, the security situation does not permit the release of such men.


My Lords, may I ask the Minister how much the Army is being held back by political considerations in its campaign against the terrorists?


My Lords, as I said in my speech in your Lordships' House last week, that is the first question I asked. I asked it again last Saturday of the Officer Commanding 39th Infantry Brigade and the Officer Commanding a Belfast area. The answer is that the Army are not asking to do more than they are allowed to do at this moment. They are not asking for permission to go in and do something which we are stopping. That does not mean to say that they would not like twice as many men and twice as much leave, but in relation to the work they have said again and again, as has my right honourable friend, that they are not being held back by politicians for political reasons.


My Lords, in replying to my noble friend Lord Belstead, the noble Lord said that he would answer by letter and I accept that entirely. But will the noble Lord consider publishing the letter in the OFFICIAL REPORT so that other noble Lords have the benefit of knowing what is said?


My Lords, may I look at that suggestion and see what is said before I decide?