Exercise of Executive and Legislative Powers in N.I.

Part of Orders of the Day — Northern Ireland (Temporary Provisions) Bill – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 29th March 1972.

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Photo of Mr Frank McManus Mr Frank McManus , Fermanagh and South Tyrone 12:00 am, 29th March 1972

The reason I voted—strangely, as many people might think—against the Bill last night, was from no desire on my part to maintain Stormont in any shape or form. One important reason for voting against the Bill is that it still contained provisions relating to the Special Powers Act. I could not now, or at any point in the future, vote for any measure which contained reference to the Special Powers Act or anything like it.

That is only one reason for my voting against the Bill. The atrocious and Draconian nature of the Special Powers Act is fairly well known in this Committee. Hon. Members in all parts of the Committee must now have some idea of what it is like to live in the shadow of such an Act. They must have some idea of the sort of power it gives to one person.

It is therefore strange to hear hon. Members opposite arguing that it would be wrong to give such powers to the incoming Secretary of State. I am not in the least in favour of government by decree, but it is strange to hear hon. Members opposite say that dictatorial powers should not be given to any one man. It is mainly the Unionist Members who have been concentrating on this theme. Those self-same Members are the most fanatic supporters of the Special Powers Act which gives absolute and total power to one man. It makes him judge, jury and executioner all at once. There must be some consistency in this matter. If it is wrong to give one man dictatorial powers, it must be wrong to give all men dictatorial powers, whatever the circumstances.

The Special Powers Act also from its introduction has created a crisis of confidence in the law. We have heard much talk from the Conservative benches about law and order and, of course, there must be law and order, but with it must come respect for the law. And there has never been, and never can be, respect for the law among the minority community as long as the Special Powers Acts lasts.

The prophets of doom foretell violence from the other side. The right hon. Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan) said yesterday that 500 gunmen on the Protestant side at this moment may be ready to fire at the Army. If that is the case, the Unionist population have up to the present felt that the Special Powers Act existed to protect them from their Catholic neighbours. Now they obviously feel they have been let down by Westminster. Later on they will realise that all along they have been let down by their own leaders. But at present they are distrustful of Westminster.

Therefore, if the present Government feel that they are appeasing the Protestant population by continuing the Special Powers Act, they should realise that it may be felt that those powers will soon be used against the Protestants themselves. They do not trust them. When they were in the hands of a Unionist Minister for Home Affairs, they were confident that they would not be used against them. If they are in the hands of a man whom they do not know and whom they have reason to distrust, they will feel that the special powers will be used against them. I am against the use of special powers wherever and against whoever they are operating. If there are 500 gunmen on the other side, I do not recommend that the special powers should be used against them. Special powers are wrong, horrific and inhumane. They should be done away with altogether.

9.15 p.m.

As many hon. Members on this side have demonstrated, the special powers have brutalised the R.U.C. and all the agencies of law enforcement in Northern Ireland. In consequence, there has grown up a complete distrust of the law. Under the Special Powers Act, Brian Faulkner, when he was Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs, had power to make any law that he fancied. Constantly we were told that we must be law-abiding and must respect the law. But how can anyone respect a law which he recognises to be a bad one? For a long time, I have not respected most of the laws which have emanated from Stormont. I have been given a number of suspended sentences for demonstrating my disrespect of a particular law emanating from Stormont.

An hon. Member opposite asked why the Law Society had not spoken out against the Special Powers Act. At a recent meeting the Law Society, composed of Protestant and Catholic lawyers, expressed its strong condemnation of the Act. The Act pervades every fibre of society in Northern Ireland. It is totally dominant. Its worst expression is internment. I shall deal with that in a moment, but it shows itself in all sorts of ways.

When there is such a crisis of confidence in the law, it cannot be helped by actions of the sort which perhaps I might illustrate by one example of the powers of Ministers of Home Affairs, and what some of those Ministers used to do. There was a Minister named Topping. There came a time when obviously he was getting a bit fed up with being Minister for Home Affairs. It so happened that the Recordship of Belfast fell vacant. Mr. Topping appointed himself Recorder of Belfast. Hon. Members might think that that is crazy and could not happen, but it did. How could any anti-Unionist have any confidence in decisions that that man might come to on the bench? It could not be expected.

Internment is the worst aspect of the Special Powers Act. The powers of internment have been amply demonstrated by eminent lawyers in this country, in my own area and elsewhere to be the strongest ever to obtain. It is well known that a former high-ranking Minister in South Africa said that he would give up all his legislation for one or two Sections of the Special Powers Act. That is a fairly high recommendation from the Minister of a country like South Africa. They must be fairly powerful for him to say that.

The Prime Minister and the incoming Secretary of State said that they intended to make a start on the phasing out of internment. What does that mean? I know a man from the City of Derry, Sean Keenan, who told me that, in a previous internment, from the day he heard the talk, the rumour, that internment would be phased out until he was actually released was four years. If that is what the Government mean by phasing out of internment, it is obviously not on.

As I said in a previous debate, phasing out of internment is a nonsense. If it is held to be wrong, then it must be abolished. If it is held to be right, then it must be retained. We cannot have it both ways.

I am coming on to what the Secretary of State designate said about considering the case of every internee. There are no cases to be considered. If there were cases to be considered, why have they not resulted in some kind of legal action? Internment has been with us for almost eight months. It is nonsense now to speak of reviewing each case after eight months. Surely everything is known after eight months. Many brave Members of Parliament have stood up, under the privilege of this House—