HL Deb 12 December 1979 vol 403 cc1264-70

8.42 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that the draft Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1978 (Continuance) (No. 2) Order 1979, which was laid before this House on 28th November, be approved. As the House well knows, terrorism continues to bedevil Northern Ireland; and that is the reason for proposing once again that the Emergency Provisions Act should continue in force for a further six months. Your Lordships will expect me to give, as is customary, an analysis of the current security situation in Northern Ireland. What I would like to do is to give an analysis which seeks to avoid the two traps of unnecessary pessimism and unqualified Optimism, both based on too narrow an interpretation of a few well-publicised incidents.

Contrary to general impressions, the level of violence in 1979 is not much higher than it was for 1978. The pattern of violence, however, has changed and there are certain geographical areas of Northern Ireland—particularly the counties of Armagh and Tyrone—where there has been a marked increase in violence. But taking Northern Ireland a a whole, and taking all the indicators together, 1979 has seen only a slight upturn in violence over 1978. There have, of course, been some terrible incidents in 1979 and these have rightly shocked us all. One hundred and four people have lost their lives so far this year, 56 of them members of the security forces and nine of the Prison Service.

The figures I have quoted show to what an extent the Provisional IRA have concentrated their venom this year upon the security forces, and—more strikingly still—upon the Prison Service. In the Prison Service we have a body of men who are carrying out their onerous task courageously, effectively, and without complaint. The prison governors and their staffs are not members of the security forces; yet they are specifically attacked by the Provisional IRA as if they were. The role of the prison officer is to treat those committed by the courts, whether under sentence or on remand, in accordance with the requirements of prison rules—which broadly speaking are the same in Northern Ireland as in Great Britain. They are not in any way concerned with the circumstances of the offences for which the men and women in their charge were sent to prison. If the Provisional IRA believe that by their attacks on prison officers, they will further their campaign for special concessions for convicted criminals who belong to their organisation, I have to tell them that they are wasting their time. The Government will grant no such concessions. If the Provisional IRA are hoping to break the morale of the Prison Service, I am glad to say that I have not the slightest reason to suppose that they are having any success. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the courage and devotion to duty which the prison staff have shown.

I am sorry to say that in recent months there has been an increase in what appear to be sectarian killings. There is something peculiarly obnoxious about killing a man because he holds a particular creed or a particular family name—and to some foreigners it must appear that everyone in the Province is either called Montague or Capulet. These assassinations can profit no one. They will simply add to the spiral of violence. I have to make it clear that the full weight of the law will be brought to bear on the perpetrators of violence, regardless of their origin or their motive.

It would be foolish to pretend that terrorism does not continue to pose a serious problem, particularly in parts of Belfast and some of the Border areas. Besides the continuing attacks on the security forces and prison officers, the co-ordinated bomb and incendiary attacks on 26th November show that the Provisional IRA does retain the ability to cause disruption and destruction on a significant scale; but I am pleased to say that a significant number of these devices were neutralised by the security forces. I know your Lordships will agree with me on the great debt of gratitude which we and all the people of the United Kingdom owe to the dedicated and immensely brave men and women of the RUC and the Army who, like the prison officers, daily put their lives at risk in the service of their fellow citizens.

Your Lordships will wish to know what the Government themselves are doing in the face of the continuing terrorist threat. We remain fixed in our resolve to eliminate terrorism and to restore normal policing throughout Northern Ireland. The essence of this policy is that the RUC, with the Army in support where necessary, should bring terrorists to justice before the courts. But there are many ways in which the security forces frustrate the evil designs of the terrorist. Since the beginning of July when I last moved the renewal of this Act, 124 firearms and over 20,000 rounds of ammunition have been recovered and 62 explosive devices have been neutralised before they went off. The most effective means of defeating terrorism, taking terrorists out of circulation through the processes of the law, is being pursued with vigour. So far this year 625 persons have been charged with terrorist offences, 44 with murder and 34 with attempted murder, and up to the end of November 805 persons have been convicted of such offences, including 52 of murder and 16 of attempted murder. These are figures which are not sufficiently often seen in the Press.

The search for effective measures to thwart the terrorist is constantly pursued. For reasons which I know the House will appreciate, I do not intend to detail all of these measures. I should, however, like to mention a number of important developments. First, as the House will know, the target strength of the regular RUC was raised from 6,500 to 7,500. This was at the end of August and by the end of November the strength stood at 6,580 compared with 6,110 at the end of 1978. The widespread support for the RUC is illustrated by the continuing high number of applications to join the Force, since the increase in the target strength was announced. These extremely encouraging recruting trends are matched by many other improvements in the capability of the RUC. The vehicle fleet is being steadily increased; a new and very advanced teleprinter system has been commissioned; a modern command computer system is due to be operational next year and a massive building programme is in hand to provide increased accommodation and facilities for the Force.

The Chief Constable undoubtedly has at his command a thriving and modern police force, well-equipped to fight terrorism but still mindful of its other responsibilities to the community including, for example, its regular community relations work. I take this opportunity of paying tribute to two men who have played a crucial role in maintaining the effectiveness of our security efforts in the Province. Under Sir Kenneth Newman the RUC has steadily grown in strength and ability. The fact that the morale of the Force has also remained high, in spite of the extraordinary demands and stresses imposed upon it by the terrorist campaign, is a measure of his outstanding leadership and of the respect in which he is held by those under his command. In the same way, the cool determined efficiency and professional response of the Army in the aftermath of the tragedy at Warrenpoint in August are equally clear evidence, if that were required, of the impact and firmness which General Creasey has brought to the Army's work in Northern Ireland. I am sure that your Lordships will wish to join with me in expressing our gratititude to both the Chief Constable and the GOC for the unenviable burden which they have shouldered with such fortitude during the years of their appointments.

I am sure that the House will have been heartened by the recent major successes of the security forces of the Irish Republic against our acknowledged common enemy, the IRA. These include the large arms find in Dublin Docks, the arms finds in the Border areas and a number of convictions for terrorist offences, including the murder of Lord Mountbatten. These are just illustrative of the fight being waged against terrorism throughout Ireland.

I have instanced some of the ways in which we are maintaining the drive against terrorism. We shall not shrink from any further measures that we may consider necessary to overcome the threat. The keynote to our policy is flexibility: flexibility in the use of manpower, in the disposition of forces, in the choice of operational tools, in the individual response to particular terrorist activities. But there are two things we must not do. We must not take actions which would have, at best, a cosmetic effect; nor must we adopt draconian policies which, dramatic as they may sound, would involve in practice a far less efficient use of security force manpower or would undermine the success we are having in isolating the terrorists from both local and international support.

The shadow of terrorism in Northern Ireland should not be allowed to obscure the very real progress which is being made there in many economic and social fields, nor will the Government be diverted from their determination to find an acceptable means of restoring to the people of Northern Ireland more responsibility for their own affairs, which is a common factor to both debates this evening. In many parts of the Province the spirit of the people and their will to restore their lives to normality, and maintain it in abnormal circumstances, give me much cause for optimism and admiration.

To sustain this optimistic spirit we must ensure that the security forces are given the full support of the law in their hazardous task. That law gives them certain powers which are out of the ordinary, and it is essential that Parliament should consider carefully every six months that it is right to extend them. The Commission of which the noble Lord, Lord Plant, is chairman—the Northern Ireland Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights—has properly made it its business to reinforce that obligation. They have been giving close study to the Emergency Provisions Act and its operation, and they have concluded that the time has come for us to begin to allow some of the stronger provisions of the Act to lapse.

The noble Lord is aware that the Government have not felt able to agree with this view. But the House should be aware that we fully respect it, and will be swift to restore the position when we are convinced that it is safe to do so. For the time being the Government do not consider that it would be right to relinquish the powers which Parliament has made available to deal with those who disregard the law, the value of human life, and all civilised conventions, including Parliamentary democratic government, in pursuing their evil purpose. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft Order laid before the House on 28th November, be approved.—(Lord Elton.)


My Lords, I should like to join the Minister in his tribute to the security forces, and particularly to the staff of the Prison Service who do a worthwhile, honourable and very difficult job. I also recognise that when this order was debated in another House yesterday it had some six hours of discussion spent on it. I note the noble Lord's remarks concerning the Human Rights Commission and Lord Plant's role in that Commission, and I would support the order for approval for a six months' period.


My Lords, might I ask the noble Lord that the next time this order is debated we should deal with it at an earlier time when certain subjects could be raised? I think that this is the second time that it has been moved at the end of a long day, when people are fed up with listening to the problems of Northern Ireland. I think there is an issue which cannot he let go, and which will take me one minute to mention. I should like to support a statement by the honourable Member for West Belfast, Mr. Fitt, only I would put it in slightly different terms.

I was amazed that the Secretary of State should say that he was confident that the Irish Government would be as persuant in its security policy as the previous Government. It does not seem to me, when Mr. Haughey's own peers were judging him and saying that there was a flaw in his make-up and that Ireland wanted his leadership as much as a man wanted a hole in his head, that that was exactly the thing to say at this particular moment. But the issue is clear that the Secretary of State, having made this statement, which to me is an amazing statement, must make absolutely clear to the Prime Minister of the Irish Republic that there is no British withdrawal and that Ulster is British. If we do not have that, then the few sectarian murders he has mentioned will become a flood. I support absolutely Mr. Fitt in that tremendous fear. It must be absolute, because we know the present price. It is nothing to do with us who governs the Irish Republic, but we know his history and have seen his own peers judge him. This is something of which we are very conscious.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Blease, for his reception of the Motion. I would assure the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, that the House never tires of his voice nor that of Lord Blease under circumstances when the clock permits. I will see that the usual channels will fix up an earlier debate for this subject in the sad event of our debating it yet again in six months' time.


My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, might I ask him if he could tell me whether it is true or untrue to say that if our law was in conformity with the law in the majority of EEC countries—


My Lords, I think the noble Lord is out of order. My noble friend had really sat down.


I accept that.

On Question, Motion agreed to.