HL Deb 22 March 1999 vol 598 cc1095-104

12.5 a. m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Lord Dubs) rose to move, That the draft order and the order (S. I. 525/99) laid before the House on 3rd March be approved [12th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am grateful that it has been agreed that we should consider these two orders together since their effect is similar. The emergency provisions Act amendment order adds the Orange Volunteers and the Red Hand Defenders to the list of proscribed organisations in Schedule 2 to the Emergency Provisions Act 1996.

The specified organisations order has the effect of adding the Orange Volunteers and the Red Hand Defenders to the list of organisations who are ineligible for the benefit of the Northern Ireland Sentences Act 1998. That benefit is the early release of prisoners convicted of scheduled, that is to say, terrorist-type, offences. If an organisation is specified, supporters of that organisation do not qualify for early release. Neither of these organisations currently has any members or supporters in prison but I am sure your Lordships would agree that it is entirely right that they should be listed as specified organisations. The order also removes the Irish National Liberation Army from the list and thus entitles its supporters to benefit from early release.

Before I go into more detail on the provisions of the orders and the need for them, I should like to set them in context. Northern Ireland has in recent weeks attracted much news coverage as the parties and the governments have been urgently seeking to secure the full implementation of the Belfast agreement. However, the past week has, tragically, seen the focus of attention shift back to the dark days of murder on the streets. There have been two more murders, including that of Rosemary Nelson, a well-respected and courageous solicitor, a wife and mother of three, which appalled everyone who has been working so long for peace. That murder was claimed by the Red Hand Defenders.

The Government very much welcome the swift action taken by the Chief Constable in involving David Phillips, Chief Constable of Kent, and the FBI in investigating this horrendous murder. As the Chief Constable, Mr. Flanagan, said, "not only will this investigation be meticulous but it will be transparently obvious to (the family of Mrs Nelson) and to the watching world. I am determined that those concerns will be addressed". The Chief Constable has further emphasised that no constraints and no limit whatever will be placed upon Chief Constable Phillips and the FBI.

Set against these recent despicable acts, and with the memory of Omagh very much in our minds, is the fact that Northern Ireland has seen over the past year a transformation in the political climate. The Good Friday agreement has provided, for the first time in Northern Ireland's history, an opportunity to secure long-term peace and political stability based on an agreed accommodation between the two communities. There has already been a great deal of progress in implementing that agreement. The new Assembly has been set up; treaties have been signed to establish agreed cross-border bodies; the Human Rights Commission has been established; and reviews of policing and criminal justice are well underway. Only a year ago, all this would have been unthinkable.

There is still hard work to be done but the prize is within our reach. That is what those organisations not on ceasefire want to destroy. They want to bring to an end the hard-won progress which has been made. They must not be allowed to succeed.

Because the order proscribing the Orange Volunteers and the Red Hand Defenders was made under the urgency procedure provided for by Section 60(3) of the Emergency Provisions Act, they were proscribed with effect from 4th March 1999 and we are now seeking to have that proscription endorsed by Parliament. The main effect of proscription is that membership of the organisation in question becomes a criminal offence. Apart from making membership of the named organisation an offence, proscription creates offences in relation to soliciting or inviting financial or other material support; helping to arrange, manage or address a meeting; and dressing or carrying articles in a way which is likely to arouse reasonable apprehension that the person is a member or a supporter of the organisation. I should add that the Orange Volunteers are described within both orders as: The organisation using the name 'The Orange Volunteers' and being the organisation in whose name a statement described as a press release was published on 14th October 1998". A copy of the press release has been deposited in the Library for the convenience of Members. This rather tortured piece of wording was deemed necessary in order to differentiate between the present-day Orange Volunteers and an organisation of the same name, but unrelated, which was formed in the 1970s. Although the 1970s organisation has apparently been inactive for some years, we consider that it does still exist. It is not, however, an organisation which we consider should be specified, nor does it meet the criteria for specification.

Similarly, the other order specifies both the Orange Volunteers and the Red Hand Defenders as organisations ineligible for benefit from the prisoner early release scheme. But it does have the effect of despecifying the Irish National Liberation Army and thus brings it within the early release scheme. This is in recognition of the fact that the Secretary of State now believes that it is observing a complete and unequivocal ceasefire.

The two orders should be seen as evidence of the flexible approach we take, responding to the ever-changing nature of the terrorist threat in Northern Ireland. I commend them to the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order and the order (S. I. 525/99) laid before the House on 3rd March be approved [12th Report from the Joint Committee]. — (Lord Dubs.)

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his explanation of the orders, which we fully support. The orders were made before the murder of Mrs. Nelson, on which I shall say more later. It is also a sad fact that the splinter groups that we see appearing are, in general, anti-agreement. One difficulty is that we are aiming at a moving target, and no doubt further splinter groups will appear, but I am sure that the Secretary of State will take similar firm and prompt action as required.

The objective of the extremist paramilitaries is to ruin the agreement and stop the peace process because peace is not in their interests. The last thing they want to see is normalisation in Northern Ireland. These extremists are becoming increasingly desperate as they see the efforts of all the parties to the Belfast agreement getting tantalisingly close to achieving full implementation. However, I also believe that they are attempting to take advantage of their window of opportunity arising from the current difficulties over decommissioning.

Last week I said that I would elaborate on my views of the foul murder of Mrs. Nelson. She was a member of the legal profession who handled many high-profile cases involving republicans. Her work was important as there would be something wrong in terms of human rights if, yes, even alleged terrorists did not have access to legal advice that they could be confident in. Furthermore, it is in no one's interest for a person, whatever his background, to be convicted of a crime that he did not commit.

Mrs. Nelson was part of our criminal justice system, but it is worth pointing out that so, too, are judges, the RUC, prison officers and, indeed, witnesses. It is well known that members of these groups have been killed and they remain vulnerable to terrorist attack.

I accept that I am relatively inexperienced in these matters, and no doubt I will see further disappointments and set-backs for us to overcome. Last week I said that I was bitter about Mrs. Nelson's murder, but I do not shed crocodile tears. I am sincere. I have described the important role that she undertook, but she was attacked despite the fact that she was also the mother of three young children, one of whom was at school very near to where the attack was planned to take place. To target a woman in that way was quite despicable even in terms of international terrorism. I join with the Minister in supporting the prompt action of the Chief Constable of the RUC in setting up the investigation into the murder.

What will concern many, both inside and outside this House, is whether the brutal attack by the so-called loyalists, who will be caught by the orders, will have the effect that they desire. That is in the hands of the republicans. They could do nothing; they could just ignore the attack and pretend that it did not happen. Or they could do exactly what the loyalist extremists want. They could follow the extremists' own agenda, jeopardise the Belfast agreement and, in the process, throw away all the advantages of the agreement that they signed. Incidentally, as that approach would make the extremists' attack a successful one, it would put other soft targets at risk. In making that point, I wish to make it clear that I see no silver lining in Mrs. Nelson's murder. It is all entirely negative.

On the other hand, the republicans could salvage something. They could do precisely what the extremists do not want. They could defeat them by carrying on with the peace process, however difficult that might be. All the parties have met their obligations, with one major exception—decommissioning. Decommissioning has to happen. I was disappointed that the Prime Minister did not take a firmer stand in the US. But I recognise that last week we were unlikely to see the breakthrough for which we had hoped.

It is disappointing that the need for this order has arisen at all. However, we fully support the timely action taken by the Secretary of State in making the order, and we are content.

12.15 a. m.

Lord Redesdale

My Lords, we on these Benches also support these orders, which are specific in their aims. Ordinary Catholics have nothing to fear from us". That claim was made by the Orange Volunteers during a display of strength for journalists shortly after the group's formation late last year. Since then, the organisation has claimed responsibility for a spate of attacks on Catholic families and bars which can only be described as senseless and indiscriminate. At Magherafelt's O'Donovan Rossa GAA club, a bricklayer who was working there was injured in a bomb attack. Patrick Shields was injured in an explosion at his home in Loughinisland in January. And it was sheer luck that a bomb left outside a bar near Toome Bridge did not kill the customers inside, or anyone else using the main Belfast to Derry road. It is clear that the ordinary people of Northern Ireland have much to fear from the Orange Volunteers.

I welcome the decision by the Secretary of State to add the Orange Volunteers to the list of proscribed organisations under the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act and the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act. I also welcome the decision to proscribe the Red Hand Defenders in the same way. Like the Orange Volunteers, that organisation has shown nothing but savage brutality towards the Northern Ireland community. As well as admitting that they have been behind a number of gun, bomb and arson attacks in the past year, the Red Hand Defenders have been responsible for the loss of three lives in the past six months or so. Constable Frankie O'Reilly died after blast bombs were lobbed at the police during Drumcree protests in Portadown. Last November Brian Service was shot and killed in North Belfast. Their latest attack claimed the life of Rosemary Nelson last Monday when a bomb exploded under her car in Lurgan. This was a particularly deliberate and barbarous incident which robbed Northern Ireland of a gifted lawyer and robbed three young children of their mother. Such foul deeds must be condemned in the strongest political terms.

Those in the Orange Volunteers and the Red Hand Defenders who planned and carried out these attacks in recent months have no place in today's society. There is absolutely no justification for such blatant sectarian aggression. It is clear that at such a critical point in the peace process, these organisations are intent not only on destroying life but also on destroying the prospects of peace and political stability in Northern Ireland.

I am in full support of the Secretary of State's decision to add these groups to the list of proscribed organisations. We also welcome the recognition of the INLA's six-month cease-fire and the decision to remove this group from the proscribed list. We support the orders.

Lord Dunleath

My Lords, I would like to thank the Minister for the clarity with which he has explained the purposes of the first two orders before us tonight. I was not present last week when the prevention of terrorism Act (continuance) order was debated, but would agree with those who say that the Act is often mistakenly seen as a Northern Ireland measure when it is not.

In that connection, I welcome Her Majesty's Government's proposals to introduce permanent United Kingdom-wide counter-terrorism legislation. The measures before us this evening are, of course, specifically Northern Ireland matters and the dreadful events of last week only served to emphasise how necessary these are. The cowardly and brutal murder of Rosemary Nelson has been claimed by the Red Hand Defenders, whose proscription, which we are asked to approve tonight, appears to have been almost uncannily foretold when it was announced, along with that of the Orange Volunteers on 3rd March. Two days after the murder of Mrs. Nelson, Mr. Frankie Curry, an alleged member of the first of the two organisations, the Red Hand Defenders, was slain. That, it was alleged, was carried out by other Loyalist paramilitaries.

The Province is currently awash with rumour and counter-rumour about his death and also the circumstances surrounding that of Mrs. Nelson in that it is claimed that the Red Hand Defenders did not have the expertise to manufacture and plant the lethal device in Mrs. Nelson's car. Ipso facto, it is claimed that they may have been assisted by the UVF, the UFF or the UDA.

The question then is whether Mr. Curry's death is the result of an internal feud or a demonstration by some of the mainstream Loyalist paramilitaries to their opposite numbers in the IRA that Mrs Nelson's murder was not approved by them. Out of these dreadful events it is perhaps—and I say this diffidently—slightly encouraging and I earnestly hope not premature to note that there has not been any knee-jerk tit-for-tat killing by the IRA. Would that this were the case and that they might now start to decommission.

Inevitably there have been claims from the usual quarters that Mrs. Nelson's murder was carried out with the collusion of the security forces and in particular that of the RUC. This kind of claim, I am sure, is totally without foundation and is inevitably yet a further attempt to discredit the RUC, no more and no less. I too applaud the chief constable of the RUC in his decision to bring in the chief constable of the Kent Constabulary and also the FBI to assist in the investigations into Mrs. Nelson's murder.

In view of the events that have occurred, there is no alternative but wholeheartedly to support these two orders. I have but one question for the Minister tonight. The sentences Act and the emergency provisions Act are both security related. Would I be right in thinking that they and the associated orders will remain as Westminster matters if and when power is devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly? If that is correct, I look forward to the day when your Lordships' House no longer needs to debate such matters and, indeed, to when these two uncomfortable Acts may be repealed.

The Minister highlighted the comparatively buoyant state of the Northern Ireland economy and employment prospects when introducing the appropriation orders at the beginning of this month. I congratulate the Government on this. It highlights the benefits of a peace dividend. How cruel if all this progress is now dashed. Therefore, I wish the Secretary of State good fortune in the difficult days that lie ahead, especially those leading up to Good Friday next week.

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, I wish to make a few brief points but before doing so I wish to do two things. First, I associate myself with the words of my noble friend Lord Attlee concerning Mrs. Nelson's death. Secondly, I wish to make it quite clear that, whatever I may say tonight or may have said in previous debates, I still strongly support the bipartisan approach within Parliament.

It is worth reflecting—perhaps in my rather cynical way—that the Government face serious difficulty in the fragmentation of these various bodies. For 50 years or more it has been the objective of the Republican movement to maintain a united front. Mr. Adams and Mr. McGuiness say that they are unable to deliver disarmament and so on, but they will put that before losing a united Republican front.

I believe that what is happening as we speak is that individuals move between one organisation and another. It has been more difficult for the RUC without military support to have on-the-street cover and close surveillance of the various terrorist areas. Organised crime involving drugs and other forms of smuggling has increased. The difficulty that approaches, and probably exists now, is how to be sure that objectively one is assessing where terrorism drifts down the horrible murky line and gets lost in what we may know in this country as ordinary organised crime. As we know can happen here and elsewhere in the world, organised crime is capable of moving further so that the funds from that activity go into registered public companies and show a totally clean front. That has been the situation in Northern Ireland for many years. The road that we are taking by prisoner releases and the orders before the House tonight will make it more and more difficult to determine whether a particular individual is not a terrorist or was a terrorist and whether a particular act was not organised crime and straightforward murder but something different.

Since the murder of Mrs. Nelson I have had in mind—I know for certain that this occurred in the 1970s—the question of collusion between the bottom of the republican IRA terrorist movement and those in the loyalist movements who have the same objectives and are equally determined to destroy anything that looks as if it may restore a civilised and peaceful community and government. It is quite possible that through the murkiness that I have just outlined the idea arose, perhaps after a drink or drug or two, and perhaps the device was given or sold to a loyalist. It is also possible that somewhere down that murky line the republican movement engineered and organised that devious and horrible crime. That is the real world with which we are dealing in Northern Ireland. I support the orders before us tonight. I also support and admire the Ministers who are working in Northern Ireland.

12.30 a. m.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead

My Lords, I join with other noble Lords who have condemned recent atrocities. I equally condemn the activities of these groups. I hesitate to call them "splinter groups". As the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, has just said, there seems to be no end to the fragmentation, some of which is very carefully orchestrated. As to the very valid point he makes about the possibility of collusion, to my certain knowledge that existed even in the 1970s when the same firearm was used by a so-called loyalist terrorist group to commit murder and within a week was used by an equivalent IRA group for the same purpose. We should not discount entirely the possibility that that still goes on and, unfortunately, may continue to mushroom as splintering continues.

Your Lordships will be aware of the importance of sensitivity in Northern Ireland during the remaining crucial 10 days of the month of March. It is distinctly unhelpful to have the sentencing order on the agenda—the most obscene item of legislation imaginable. I understand that it has to go through the fast track system. I am glad that we have the fast track system of adding organisations, given the freedom with which they splinter, regroup and come back wearing a different colour.

The concession required of law-abiding citizens was in a sense horrific in the concept of the release of prisoners. But as the release of convicted triumphalist murderers proceeds, unfortunately so the support of the Belfast agreement diminishes in like proportion. But what support remained, I am afraid, has been seriously eroded following the conviction last week of the deadly sniper gang of four which included Bernard McGinn who made the bombs used at Canary Wharf, the Baltic Exchange, and Hammersmith Bridge.

The murderer himself admitted without qualification or reluctance that he specialised in making bombs north and south of the Irish border on a daily basis. To use his own words, he said that it was like a day's work. He received three life sentences for the callous murder at different times of three soldiers during a 20-year reign of terror in County Armagh. The other three terrorists were each given 20-year sentences; and as they were all leaving the dock the four murderers laughed and shouted, "See you next year". That is not too difficult to work out. Sixteen months in prison and then they, too, will be released. That boast was not directed at their IRA sympathisers in the court. It was a threat against the law abiding citizens in the United Kingdom. In 16 months they will be retrained and re-equipped, and back at the work they have claimed they know best and which the said gentleman stated was just like a day's work.

For that revolting situation the two governments have only themselves to blame. It would be interesting to supervise and scrutinise the activities of the Irish Government in carrying out their equivalent legislation. I believe that they are displaying a little more toughness in the criteria that they establish as to who will be released and who will be kept inside. I know that Her Majesty's Government will say that the release of prisoners is the price we have to pay for peace. But unfortunately terrorists have not yet given peace, only a scaling down of their campaign in which a balance of terror had been achieved by the time they were forced to have their first ceasefire. If they intend to grant a permanent peace, why do they feel the need to insist on retention of the weapons of war?

It is against that background of anger and frustration that crucial questions will now confront those in positions of responsibility in Northern Ireland. During the past 10 days the most dangerous contributors to destabilisation and further confrontation and anger will come from the unthinking demands of those who are sometimes termed the great and the good. Some of them, even in the past 48 hours, have already demanded compromise between the leaders mistakenly regarded as equals. But there has been no question of equality of sacrifice on the part of those leaders.

Over the past three years, Mr. Trimble, the leader of my party, has been forced, of necessity, to make concessions to keep the show on the road, and many other concessions to violence have been made by the British and Irish Governments, concessions, I am afraid, made always at the expense of the Unionist population which has, in addition to all that, been subjected to a mind-boggling campaign of distortion and deception.

In the other corner stands one Mr. Adams who has conceded absolutely nothing but pocketed all the concessions made by others and then always comes back for more. So well-meaning but naive people must understand mat there is no equation between Mr. Trimble and Mr. Adams.

Those noble Lords who were present on 9th March this year will have heard the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew of Twysden, describe the reality of Mr. Trimble's position. He said: There is no more movement—and, my goodness, there has been plenty—to be had from those representing Unionists in Northern Ireland. Nor, I judge, is there any movement from the two governments". —[Official Report, 9/3/99; col. 197.] So my final words and my plea to the great and the good is a word of polite caution, asking them please to recognise that Mr. Trimble has nothing left to give while Mr. Adams has not even started to give.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I am grateful for the widespread support for the Government's policy in putting forward these two orders. I agree with what the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, said about being tantalisingly close to agreement. Indeed, I hope that the next two weeks will see some success in reaching that agreement.

Yes, I agree with the words used by the noble Earl and the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, about the murder of Rosemary Nelson as being a despicable act intended to undermine the whole peace process.

I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Dunleath, said that he was grateful that there were no tit-for-tat killings. That is something for which we should be grateful, for a wave of such killings would certainly undermine the political progress that we have made over the past year.

The noble Lord asked a specific question about whether certain powers will remain with Westminster. The position is that security matters will remain at Westminster because they are excepted matters. Criminal justice, the police and policing are reserved matters which stay at Westminster, but there is a possibility that at a certain point in the future, they could become transferred matters. But security stays as a Westminster responsibility. I hope that that gives the noble Lord the assurance that he sought.

While being generally supportive of a bipartisan approach, for which I am grateful, the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, spoke about areas on which I should prefer not to speculate as regards who has been responsible for any particular act. That would not be helpful. It is better to leave that to the present police investigation and inquiry to see who can be brought to justice for that and other murders.

I appreciate that the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, has been consistently unhappy about the policy of releasing prisoners. He is right to say—and I repeat it again—that it is a price for peace and without an agreement on the release of prisoners, there would have been no Good Friday agreement.

When we introduced the original legislation permitting the release of prisoners, we said that that was a particularly difficult matter. I am extremely conscious of the real difficulty facing victims, relatives or friends of victims of terrorism when they find that the terrorist who murdered or maimed is being released. I appreciate how difficult that is. However, without that particular approach, we would simply not have got the Good Friday agreement. Given the length of time the troubles have lasted, even before we had the early release scheme, there were many murderers and others who had been released in the normal course of events, having served 15 or 20 years. It is a difficult issue and I am sensitive to the distress it has caused over the period of the releases.

The noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, also suggested that concessions had been made entirely at the expense of the Unionist population. He will not expect me to agree with that. We feel that all sectors of the community have been required to make concessions. That has been part and parcel of the Good Friday agreement. It is absolutely right that we go on demanding that all people who are party to the agreement should accept their responsibilities and obligations under it. That is the basis of the Government's pressure for movement so that the new Assembly can, I hope, assume full powers in the very near future. I commend the orders to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.