HL Deb 11 February 1975 vol 356 cc1224-31

3.40 p.m.


My Lords, with the permission of the House, I should like to repeat a Statement which my right honourable friend, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, made in another place this afternoon. I am afraid that it is rather a long Statement but the situation, as the House knows, is a grave one. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a Statement.

"On 14th January, I outlined to the House the Government's policy towards Northern Ireland. I said that the Government were seeking a lasting peace and that a genuine and sustained cessation of violence would create a new situation. If that took place, there would be a progressive reduction in the present commitment of the Army, both in numbers and in the scale of activity, leading to a reduction to peace time levels and withdrawal to barracks. I also said that, once I was satisfied that violence had come to a permanent end, I should be prepared to speed up the rate of releases with a view to releasing all detainees. I made it clear that Ministers and officials were ready to explain this policy and hear the views of those in Northern Ireland who had something to contribute.

"I re-emphasised this policy in my statement on 5th February and told the House that my officials had had a number of meetings with various organisations including Provisional Sinn Fein. At those meetings officials had been under instructions to expound the Government's policy and to outline and discuss the arrangements that might be made to ensure that any ceasefire did not break down.

"There have been further meetings with Provisional Sinn Fein and the Provisionals have declared a further ceasefire to run from six p.m. on Monday, 10th February, 1975.

"The House will wish to have more details of the discussions. On 16th January, the Provisional IRA did not prolong their temporary suspension of offensive military action and made a good deal of alleged incidents which, whatever the true facts, they claimed should not have happened.

"Subsequently, my officials put to Provisional Sinn Fein a scheme designed to make effective arrangements for ensuring that any future ceasefire did not break down. This has five main elements.

"First, a number of incident centres, manned by civil servants on a 24-hour basis, will be established in various parts of Northern Ireland. These centres will be linked with my office in Belfast. Second, if developments occur which seem to threaten the ceasefire, these incident centres will act as a point of contact in either direction. Third, issues can be referred to my office in Belfast and clarified there. Fourth, cases referred up to the Northern Ireland Office will be considered, and a reply passed back to the incident centre for onward transmission. Fifth, if out of these exchanges general difficulties about the ceasefire arrangements emerge, then discussions will be arranged between my officials and representatives of legal organisations to clarify them. There will be full consultation by officials with the Security Forces on these arrangements which will cover only incidents arising directly out of the ceasefire.

"This is what the discussions have been about, and these arrangements will be brought into effect during the next few days.

"These practical arrangements can only be the first steps towards a permanent peace. There are many problems yet to overcome in a situation which is far from clear. There is no quick and easy solution and winding down from violence will not happen overnight. It is relatively easy to identify these problems.

"In some cases a continued cessation of violence will, as as I have indicated before, bring its own results. The presence of the Army will become progressively less obtrusive. Screening, photographing and identity checks can be brought to an end. It will be easier to move about. I shall not sign Interim Custody Order.

"The position of the Security Forces remains as I have previously stated it; namely, that actions are related to the level of any activity which occurs. If this diminishes, then so too will the actions of the Security Forces. But I must make it clear that anyone involved in acts of violence will be prosecuted in the courts.

"I have made clear the basis of Government policy; namely, that we are seeking a genuine and sustained cessation of violence. This is not just a question of time but, if people go on below the surface acquiring explosives and arms and preparing for violence at some later date, then no one will expect me to regard the cessation of violence as genuine. It means an end to bombings, murders and knee-cappings, to kangaroo courts, to armed robberies and hijackings; to the horrors of which even the last few days have given us fresh examples.

"Sectarian murders and protection rackets must be ended, and the House will be aware that this affects the whole community.

"The community itself must contribute positively to peace. This is not just a matter for the police; it is something in which the whole community must be involved. Policing and community peace-keeping is in everyone's interest.

"There are other very difficult problems which I should put to the House because they will have to be tackled. How is permanent peace to be secured? How is respect for the law to be restored? What is to happen to the Emergency Provisions Act and to proscribed organisations? How is the threat of murder and assassination to be brought to an end and people protected? How are the communities to live in peace together? How are jobs to be found so that people can live with their families at home and enjoy a life without fear? These are not questions to which I have ready answers, but they all require examination, thought and action. The Government will do all they can to help solve them, but it would be an allusion even to think they will disappear overnight. Patience, understanding and good will are needed, and a heavy responsibility here rests on the politicians, and would-be politicians, in Northern Ireland to seek out constructive solutions to deal with real problems that have persisted for more than 50 years. I hope now that a process of discussion and debate can replace violence.

"My task now is to seek a permanent end to violence, which is the first requirement of any process of discussion in Northern Ireland. This was why I felt it right to take some first steps of a practical kind once I received indications that the Provisionals contemplated reinstating their ceasefire and that they accepted that practical arrangements were needed to ensure that it did not break down. That is what the talks have been about. There has been no question of bartering away the future of the people of Northern Ireland.

"As I have said, the situation is far from clear-cut. There is no readymade or well-defined path ahead. I want to find a way forward, but there are many obstacles and many difficulties. It would be idle to pretend they do not exist. The fact that there is a ceasefire and practical arrangements for monitoring it are the first tentative and welcome steps which I have reported to the House today. With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall continue to report any further developments to the House."

My Lords, that is the end of the Statement.

3.49 p.m.


My Lords, the House will welcome the Statement repeated by the noble Lord which records the ceasefire which became operative as from yesterday. I think that noble Lords will agree with me that, obviously, to judge from the Statement, the situation is at a very delicate stage. It is clear that on it hangs probably the opportunity at last for peace, and on it may hang the chances for the success of the Convention to which obliquely, towards the end, the Statement refers. I therefore do not intend to ask the noble Lord any questions from my place in the House this afternoon.

However, may I just make one comment. As I understand the Statement, it does not negotiate; and it seems to me, listening to the noble Lord, that it clearly says that a cessation of violence will bring from the Government a reduction in security activities although acts of violence will continue to be brought before the courts. If I interpret it aright, that has been Government policy for three years now; that is the policy we have been supporting from these Benches and we believe that that is the policy which is right. The Statement ends by asking a series of questions. I do not know whether the House will agree with me, but it strikes me that the time has come when, through the usual channels, a debate on Northern Ireland might be arranged. If the Government feel that these questions should be asked, and if the Government will allow us to probe their views on the Report of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner—which has come out only recently—and to clarify one or two more oblique references contained in this Statement, I think it would be of help in the near future.


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, for repeating the Statement, and to join noble Lords on these Benches with the sentiments which have already been expressed by saying how grateful we are for what has been said and what has been done. Congratulations are also due to all concerned, particularly the Secretary of State who is doing a very good job under very great difficulty, and, it seems to me, under a certain amount of undeserved criticism. This, as I think members of both recent Governments and all Parties would agree, is not a moment for discussing political initiatives in Ulster. It is rather too late for that. It is a moment in which we should try to ease the people of Northern Ireland out of their problems by a series of pragmatic agreements, which are not susceptible to theological or political prose. I therefore join with the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, in saying that I do not think this is the right moment to ask the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, any questions and I shall not be asking them from this Bench today.

I am not certain that I can join the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, in stating that this is an apposite moment for a debate on Northern Ireland. It might well be that we should give a considerable time after this initiative before we seek to air these matters publicly, and go into the questions which the Secretary of State has asked. We welcome the steps which have been taken and we will watch progress with sympathy, concern and hope.


My Lords, may I reply first to the two noble Lords who have spoken? I am most grateful for their welcome to the Statement and for their abstinence from raising awkward questions. This is a very delicate moment and, while we respect very much the right of the Opposition in all its aspects to probe, we very much appreciate the fact that noble Lords opposite do not think that this is the right moment to do so.

I should like to make two comments on what the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, said. I think the success of the present ceasefire is highly relevant to the success of the Constitutional Convention. I believe that everyone concerned with Northern Ireland feels that the only chance of the Convention producing something really constructive is if there is a reasonable absence of violence while it is going on. So this is a very important item, I entirely agree. I should like to confirm what the noble Lord asked me to confirm, that there have been no negotiations. There has been, as he said, a clear statement, "If you stop hitting me, I shall stop defending myself in the way I have been doing." That is not an agreement or a negotiation. One thing can follow only if the other happens first.

As regards a debate, clearly the time must come when we discuss this matter. We have the Report by my noble and learned friend Lord Gardiner which will need discussing, and we have all sorts of things going on, so I would be loath to try to find the right moment today. But I have absolute faith in the regular channels which never let one down in this sort of matter. I am very grateful for what has been said.


My Lords, is the Minister aware how deeply grateful all of us are that there appears to be a cessation of violence in Northern Ireland? Is he also aware that although many questions arise we refrain from putting them, because we do not want one word to be said in this situation which could make the situation more difficult?


My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Brockway.

Lord O'NEILL of the MAINE

My Lords, I should like to welcome the Statement which has been made, and like every other noble Lord who has spoken I hope the truce will continue. One was very depressed when the truce came to an end early this year, and this is a moment for great congratulation on all sides now that it has been possible to resume it. Like the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, and successive speakers, I do not propose to ask any questions. I feel that so long as there is a chance of this truce continuing we should try to avoid a public debate, certainly until after the Easter Recess. We can reassess the situation then.

It is very hard for noble Lords who do not come from Northern Ireland to understand the political situation there. But leaders who are not moderates have a vested interest in the continuation of violence, because if peace breaks out those leaders have no raison d'être, which is one of the reasons why it is so hard to bring about peace in Northern Ireland. Those violent leaders have already told us that they are going to "Bust up the Constitutional Convention when it takes place". It will be very much harder for them to do that if there is a background of peace at the time when the elections for the Constitutional Convention take place.

I think it an excellent idea to have incident centres scattered around the Province. I described it on the BBC last night as a "hot line", and asked why, if it was necessary to have a "hot line" between America and Russia in order to maintain peace, there should not be a "hot line" between senior British civil servants in Stormont and the Provisional Sinn Fein in order to try to maintain peace in Northern Ireland. I welcome these ideas and I hope that they will succeed. Further than that I say nothing, except to wish the Secretary of State and Ministers the very best of luck, and let us all hope and pray that this second—I should really say third—truce will continue.


My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord for his reception of the Statement.