HC Deb 09 May 2001 vol 368 cc124-30WH

1 pm

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

I am privileged to have the opportunity to speak on the issue. Documents released during the past two years and, indeed, this year in the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom under the 30-year rule have intensified suspicion of the involvement of the Republic of Ireland in assisting the formation of the Provisional IRA and supplying it with arms.

It will be noted that I refer to an intensifying of suspicion. I do so because contemporary opinion was highly suspicious of the activities of the Republic's Government, and justifiably too, when one casts one's mind back to speeches such as Jack Lynch's on 13 August 1969. He strongly implied that his Government would no longer be in a position to continue in the role of a mere spectator of events in Northern Ireland. There was also the movement of troops to the border areas. Such moves by that Government fuelled the disturbances in Northern Ireland and entrenched a residual suspicion that has never been dissipated. The 1970 arms trial in Dublin and subsequent hearings of the public accounts committee there not only failed to create the desired transparency in the events of that time but further clouded the amassed knowledge of the dealings and transactions that took place. There is an obvious need for transparency and an obvious requirement for accountability.

Victims of a generation of Provisional IRA violence in Northern Ireland and elsewhere, as well as the citizens of the Irish Republic, have the right to know precisely the involvement of Ministers of the Fianna Fáil Government in the formation of the equipment of the Provisional IRA. That right to know is regardless of the motive of any of the Ministers involved. Whether an internal power struggle took place in Fianna Fáil or the policy was a means of containing the unrest within Northern Ireland is a secondary issue. The primary issue is the actions and level of participation of those involved. Anglo-Irish relations continue to be damaged because of this issue. The current Irish Government can never hope to win the trust of British citizens in Northern Ireland without transparency and closure on this issue and others, such as Garda collusion.

Good relations north-south and east-west require a level of confidence in the Irish Republic's Government that can be achieved only by their adopting a more reflective, mature approach. They must pursue the twin goals of transparency and accountability rather than the regressive goal of damage limitation. Unless such actions are taken, the current Fianna Fáil Government may find itself viewed with the same justifiable suspicion as its 1970 predecessor. We must have detailed knowledge of the precise roles played by Charles Haughey, the then Finance Minister, Neil Blaney, the Minister of Agriculture, and military intelligence through Colonel Hefferon and Captain Kelly, in creating and equipping the Provisional IRA. We must be in a position in which to gauge the level of knowledge of Minister of Defence Gibbons, Minister of Justice O'Morain and the Taoiseach Jack Lynch in initially acquiescing to the arms operations and then the manipulating of their political show trial.

We know that the Government sub-committee on Northern Ireland policy headed by Blaney and Haughey disbursed vast sums that reached those who were to become the Provisional IRA in Belfast. We know that military intelligence agitated for a split in the republican movement and there is no doubt that assurances of financing and aid encouraged and facilitated the decision to split from the IRA command structure.

Regrettably however, the involvement of particular individuals in Government is less accurately documented and those involved have not been held to account. Official Government papers released in the United Kingdom have strongly indicated the opinion of the UK Government to the goings on in Dublin. The letter written by the British ambassador in the Irish Republic to the then Foreign Secretary, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, is but one example. In reference to the arms trial, the ambassador wrote:

"Whatever the verdict, if Mr. Haughey was not part of a conspiracy, he was at any rate up to the neck in a scheme to import arms illegally".
Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

The passage quoted by my hon. Friend should be underlined. Like me, he would want to congratulate the ambassador on having had such a precise and accurate picture of what was going on. Is he not somewhat disturbed at current media comments in the Irish Republic. where some journalists and others are trying to cast aspersions on Prime Minister Lynch's colleagues, who clearly broke with the Haughey faction? Is it not good to have this statement which clearly states Haughey's position? Does he agree that some Dublin journalists are trying to blacken Gibbons and Lynch to exculpate the Haughey faction, and that such a form of historical re-writing is to be deprecated?

Mr. Beggs

I thank my right hon. Friend for that constructive intervention. He knows that I want to focus attention on those on whom responsibility lies for much of the trouble that we have all endured. It is not my intention to afford an opportunity for journalists to divert attention elsewhere, away from those who are culpable and guilty.

In the Irish Republic, the documenting of secret sessions of the public accounts committee reportedly has coded references to those who had control over the bank accounts used to distribute the £100,000 of so-called aid—a considerable sum in 1970. The Government papers that have been released strongly indicate the authorised omission of evidence by Minister of Justice, Dessie O'Malley, and his Department's apparent tampering with the witness statement of Colonel Hefferon. That deleted evidence implicates the then Minister of Defence, James Gibbons, much more than the mere "vestigial knowledge" that he admitted at the trial.

Of course, it was necessary for Gibbons to be adjudged clean with regards to the scandal—as Minister of Defence, he could have rendered importation of arms legal by mere involvement. Coupled with the release of the Berry papers, conflicting with the evidence given by the secretary to the Minister for Justice at trial, these documents create not so much a whiff as a stench of cover-up—that is cover-up, not stitch-up. It seems that many of those currently in the Republic who take an interest in this undoubted crisis both then and now for Fianna Fáil Governments, do so with a view to vindicating Haughey, Blaney and others by the persecution of Lynch, Gibbons and O'Malley, to whom my right hon. Friend referred. Those new sources give weight to a theory that a selective prosecution of individuals was necessary to mask the deep-seated rot in Government policy and involvement with Northern Ireland with an irresponsible pandering to an ideological notion of nationalism.

What we all must remember, and what may have greatest impact on Anglo-Irish relations, is that even if Mr. Haughey and those who can only be termed his co-conspirators were wrongly prosecuted—possibly, persecuted, as some have suggested—it does not prove an absence of participation on their part. The wrongful aspect was that all those involved were not put on the stand with them, or that the policy was not illegal as it was sanctioned from top to bottom, and that the Fianna Fail Government of the time had institutionalised enthusiasm for creating and arming the Provisional IRA.

In the interests of progress and the improvement of Anglo-Irish relations, it is essential that new information relating to the arms crisis of 1970 be fully examined and evaluated and that such examination be carried out by a broad independent public inquiry in the Republic of Ireland. That inquiry must not only narrowly assess the dubious circumstances of the prosecution of Haughey, both Kellys and Albert Lyukx. It must he an inquiry into the wider scandal—scandal is the correct term.

The inquiry must investigate the actions of Fianna Fáil Ministers who, if they did not act as mother to the Provisional IRA, acted as a midwife at the birth of the organisation by funding northern republicans through links forged by Captain Kelly with his namesake in Belfast and by transferring moneys through the Irish Red Cross Society.

The inquiry must also focus on the actions of individuals such as Blaney and on whether his cross-departmental control over Kelly and instruction of Gibbons was a sanctioned delegated power. It must consider the extent to which Blaney and Haughey's joint dictation of policy on Northern Ireland was implicitly approved throughout the Cabinet.

The 1970 arms trial verdict can be dismissed as easily as the jury in that trial accepted the republican rhetoric that was used to defend those who were clearly engaged in importation.

Mr. Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and South Tyrone)

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Beggs

I would prefer not to do so.

There has never been accountability or transparency on this issue. More than 3,000 victims in over a quarter of a century deserve better. It is impossible to predict what would have happened had encouragement and support not been given to the then potential Provisionals. However, the inability to make concrete predictions does not negate the duty of the British Government to secure transparency and accountability on behalf of murdered and maimed citizens.

It is on that basis that I urge the Minister to make representations to the Government of the Irish Republic requesting an independent inquiry on this arms issue in order to ensure that Anglo-Irish relations—east-west and especially north-south relations—are not further harmed by lack of closure. If relations are to progress and not regress, the southern Irish state must come clean, and the circumstances of the 1970s arms scandal and trial must no longer be denied and concealed.

1.15 pm
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Brian Wilson)

I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs) on securing the debate. I welcome the opportunity to respond on behalf of the Government, and I listened with real interest to what he said. I share the belief that in order to comprehend the present or mould the future, it is first necessary to understand the past. Therefore, in the Irish context, it is important that these papers have been released and are being studied. They form an important part of the backdrop to subsequent events.

However, I contend that the prime significance of the papers lies in the fact they have been published, without delay beyond the norm, and that they are now available to inform public debate. The evidence for that is here, because they form the basis of today's debate. The hon. Gentleman would agree that it is a sign of the maturity of the bilateral relationship between Britain and Ireland that both countries are willing to confront history, and learn from it.

The papers tell us about events that happened 30 years ago. It is right that those events should be known and discussed, and I understand why they provoke such a strong interest and response from the hon. Gentleman, his colleagues and many people in the island of Ireland. However, it is important to make the distinction between history and current events, and nothing that we learn from the papers detracts, or should be allowed to detract, from the progress that has been made.

The hon. Gentleman called for an inquiry. If new information emerges about events that occurred in the United Kingdom jurisdiction, the possibility of further inquiry is kept under review, as a general rule. However, it appears that the events to which the hon. Gentleman referred took place, or allegedly took place, under Irish jurisdiction and, therefore, are matters for the Irish Government.

Mr. John D. Taylor (Strangford)

I follow the point that the Minister makes, but he will recall that there are public inquiries in Northern Ireland, which is in the United Kingdom, that were requested by the Dublin Government. Therefore, it is consistent for the United Kingdom Government to request the Dublin Government to hold a public inquiry into the matters under discussion today.

Mr. Wilson

The right hon. Gentleman makes his own point. Whether to hold inquiries on any matter under the United Kingdom's jurisdiction is a matter for the United Kingdom Government. Similarly, any inquiry into matters under the Irish jurisdiction is a matter for the Irish Government. I am sure that the remarks of the hon. Member for East Antrim will have been heard in Dublin and elsewhere.

Mr. Maginnis

Further to that point, I would not want the Minister to avoid the issue, but will he tell us whether he will make representations to the Irish Government so that even-handedness can be seen? I shall not go into the fact that our own Government of the day must have had some information about what was going on, but the Government of today have the same responsibility to their citizens of Northern Ireland as to their citizens elsewhere throughout the United Kingdom.

Mr. Wilson

I strongly endorse the hon. Gentleman's last point. Obviously, exactly the same rules for jurisdiction would apply to citizens anywhere in the United Kingdom, as I am outlining in the example. The British Government have fulfilled the responsibilities that hon. Members would expect of them by ensuring that the papers were released under the 30-year rule, and are stimulating public debate such as is occurring today, which has flowed from the publication of the papers. Equally obviously, the Government of Ireland are aware of that debate and will arrive at their own decisions on where to take it.

It is important to put Anglo-Irish relations—for obvious reasons, I prefer "British-Irish" relations, but we shall not quibble about the semantics—in context. I understand the specific nature of the debate to which the hon. Gentleman refers, but it is important to recognise what is going on at present. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland recently said, Northern Ireland is a better and more prosperous place in which to live than it was three years ago, never mind 30 years ago.

In a debate at this time, it is incumbent on me, as a representative of the Government, to emphasise that now is the time to complete the Good Friday project, which means people pushing politicians to complete the job that they asked us to do three years ago. The great progress that has been made in recent years in resolving outstanding issues relating to Northern Ireland has allowed the United Kingdom and Ireland to develop a wider and deeper relationship so that we no longer constantly view each other through the single dimension of Northern Ireland. In a way, the significance of the documents that we are discussing is to remind us what happens to such relationships without that co-operation between the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland. That is not merely of historical significance but is a relevant reminder in the present-day context.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

I appreciate the Minister's distinction between British-Irish and Anglo-Irish, but the reality is that we seem to be dealing with an Anglo-Irish agreement. In that context, he may remember what he said about learning from history. History repeats itself. That same Dublin Government today has arms dumps and an army operating in the Republic, contrary to their own constitution. I ask again whether the Government will make representations to the Dublin Government for an inquiry.

Mr. Wilson

The debate relates to a specific subject and I do not want to widen it out. There is excellent security co-operation between the United Kingdom authorities and the Irish authorities, and I have no reason to suppose that the Irish Government countenance illegality on the part of an element that would threaten the democratic stability of Ireland just as it would threaten that of Northern Ireland. I do not believe that, on reflection, the hon. Gentleman would say that that is true of the present Irish Government, whatever happened in the past.

On making representations, I believe that the documents stand alone; they are in the public domain. The British Government have fulfilled their responsibility and have not evaded it any more than the Irish Government have. When documents emerge, or are published by Governments, that inform public debate and tell people what happened or shed light on events that happened 30 years ago, an inquiry into them should not be automatic. At some point we must move forward rather than always relying on history.

Mr. John D. Taylor

I return to the basic point. The Dublin Government made representations to the present UK Government about a public inquiry into the Bloody Sunday episode in Londonderry city. The Government complied with that request. Why can that not work in reverse? Why can the present Government not make representations to the Dublin Government about a public inquiry into the funding of the Provisional IRA by Haughey and others?

Mr. Wilson

Mr. Winterton—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Nicholas Winterton)

Order. One title that I have in this place after 30 years is that of Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Wilson

I unreservedly apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The distinction that the right hon. Gentleman draws is wrong. A Government can make representations to another Government on any subject. However, the implication that the Bloody Sunday inquiry was held because of representations by the Government of Ireland is not a logical extension of that principle. Representations can also be made within a jurisdiction.

I will not move from that position. The debate is taking place, and light is being shed on the matter, because of the maturity of the relationship between Britain and Ireland. That is also the reason why the documents could be published. Older documents concerning the relationship between Britain and Ireland have never been published, but that is a separate matter. It is an important advance in the relationship between the two countries, and especially in their willingness to face up to past events and to the causes of their differences, that documents that are historic in terms of the 30-year rule, but contemporary in terms of the interest that they provoke and the emotions that they arouse, have been published without any delay after 30 years. I hope that that will continue to be standard practice.

Mr. Beggs

I recognise the benefit that is accruing from the release of such information. However, will the Minister state that he shares my concern that there might be good reason to believe that evidence was tampered with, and that there are serious omissions in the information that is being released? Or is he so worried about damaging the good relations that are proclaimed between our Government and the Irish Government that he is incapable of confidently expressing to the Irish Administration that the time has come to clear the matter up and to bring the truth into the open so that what happened can be fully exposed?

Mr. Wilson

As the alleged events took place within the jurisdiction of the Irish Government, and they have serious potential implications for the Irish state, it is for them to determine whether another inquiry is required. I will make no further comment, except to state that the matter has been investigated in the past, and that it is up to a British Government to determine whether events that occurred within their jurisdiction require investigation.

Mr. John D. Taylor

I agree with the Minister. The Dublin Government should make the decision on the matter. That is not under challenge. However, the Dublin Government successfully requested that the British Government establish a public inquiry into the events of Bloody Sunday and apologise for the potato famine. Therefore, we want the Minister to ask the Dublin Government to set up a public inquiry into the dreadful affair that caused so much unhappiness, bloodshed and death in Northern Ireland for 30 years.

Mr. Wilson

It is absolutely certain that famine does not discriminate in terms of class or creed—or, at least, certainly not in terms of creed. The potato famine affected every part of Ireland, so political jurisdiction is not an issue with regard to that.

I am not prepared to allow the premise to be established that the Bloody Sunday inquiry was established at the behest of the Irish Government. There were good reasons within the United Kingdom for that inquiry to take place, and it is going ahead on that basis. Although they are being a little ungenerous, I understand the motivations of the hon. Members who are focusing on demanding that representations be made to the Irish Government, rather than on acknowledging the achievement of the British and Irish Governments in releasing information without which the debate would not be taking place. That is an important advance, both in terms of informing legitimate debate on such topics and events that have resonance down to the present day, but it is also a demonstration of the confidence and maturity of the relationship between the British and Irish Governments that that step can be taken. On that basis, we should be learning from the past. We should be interested in such events and the lessons that we can learn from them.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. We have run out of time and must move to the next debate, on Northwood and Pinner community hospital.