Security

Oral Answers to Questions — Northern Ireland – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 23rd October 1975.

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Photo of Lieut-Colonel David Mather Lieut-Colonel David Mather , Esher 12:00 am, 23rd October 1975

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement about the security situation.

Photo of Mr Philip Goodhart Mr Philip Goodhart , Beckenham

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement about the security situation in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Mr Michael McNair-Wilson Mr Michael McNair-Wilson , Newbury

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement about the security situation in the Province.

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

As I explained to the House in my statement on 16th June, in past months there has been a change in the nature of violence in Northern Ireland which has primarily taken the form of sectarian outrages and gangsterism from both sides of the community. Following a series of incidents involving and, indeed, claimed by the UVF, I proscribed that organisation at midnight on 3rd October. In recent weeks, however, there has been a succession of violent incidents for which the Provisional IRA has claimed responsibility. During this whole period, the activities of the security forces have been related to the level and nature of violence. They have, for example, been particularly active in South Armagh, in response to the level of incidents in that area. The security forces have met with considerable success in bringing those responsible before the courts. So far this year, 950 persons have been charged with serious terrorist offences, including 116 with murder, 75 with attempted murder, 368 with firearms offences and 76 with explosives offences. The number of convicted prisoners has this year increased by 437—a net increase of 25 per cent.

Photo of Lieut-Colonel David Mather Lieut-Colonel David Mather , Esher

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the figures he has given us, and those published yesterday, are encouraging and show that our security forces deserve congratulations, as does the right hon. Gentleman? Is he also aware that the situation on the ground is sometimes rather different from the picture one gets from mere figures? Does he agree that, since the ceasefire began in February, South Armagh has become virtually autonomous? Is he aware that the people there, Catholic and Protestant, are in urgent need of protection? Can he say what representations have been received from the local people and what new instructions have been given to the security forces to restore law and order south of the 46 grid line?

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

I am grateful to the hon. Member for his remarks. I shall see that they are brought to the notice of the security forces—in particular, the police, who have done an extraordinarily good job over the months. I know that the Army will not mind my saying that, because the better the police are at their job the less necessary is the Army. The short answer to the point about South Armagh is that it is a curious part of Northern Ireland. Like so many things in Northern Ireland, one has to start not in the last six months but a long way back. The violence in South Armagh is not new. It was greater a year or two ago, certainly as reflected by the number of soldiers killed.

I must take the advice of the Army on this matter. It is my job to indicate the need to protect the people of South Armagh. It is not my job to be a military tactician. On such matters I take the advice of the Director of Military Operations, who is aware of the problem.

Photo of Mr Philip Goodhart Mr Philip Goodhart , Beckenham

Since splinter groups from the various terrorist organisations now seem to be ignoring the cease-fire altogether, will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that the cease-fire limitations on intelligence-gathering by the security forces are being lifted? Will he also give an assurance that if the police want to charge suspected terrorists under the conspiracy laws, political pressure will not be brought to prevent them from doing so?

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

My advice to the hon. Member is not to believe all he reads. The only instruction which I have given to the police this year is that I am not signing interim custody orders. I am not detaining. I do not interfere with the police and the Director of Public Prosecutions over the charging of persons. It must be for them to decide. I have never interfered in that matter, and I would not now. The law is the law, and it must be carried out. As for the point about splinter groups, there are new organisations and new names. As fast as one has learned the meaning of one set of initials, the titles are changed. It is a matter of going through the courts. Detention is a valuable deterrent under some circumstances, but this is very much a matter for the courts, and for evidence. As for intelligence-gathering on a consistent everyday basis in the streets, I am content with the operations which are directed to that end in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Mr Gerry Fitt Mr Gerry Fitt , Belfast West

Is it still the intention of my right hon. Friend to end detention before Christmas and to use every available method to bring before the normal courts those against whom charges can be brought?

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

I hope I have indicated my policy today by speaking about the growth in the size of the prison population—the number of convicted prisoners—and the large number of persons being charged by the police and the Director of Public Prosecutions. Releases from detention have gone on over the years. I have to set against this those who are charged through the courts. I have to take each case into account, and I have to take account of the advice given to me on the question whether there is danger to the general public. I must weigh that up. I want to end detention. I believe that the best way is for people to go through the courts. I have discovered that I get no criticism in the Catholic or Protestant communities if men go through the courts. Once there is detention, much as I know what I am doing, people do not believe me.

Photo of Mr Enoch Powell Mr Enoch Powell , South Down

With regard to the incident centres, will the Secretary of State indicate from what actions or kinds of action the security forces refrain, according to whether responsibility for a particular outrage is claimed or disavowed by the IRA?

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

With regard to the incident centres for which I am responsible, the answer is given straight away. Often, when I look at the report, I find that it is said that this is a matter for the police or the security forces. It is not a question of changing the policy of the security forces as a result of information that comes through. What is of value from time to time is a clear indication of who is responsible, and it is useful for us to know, in this interim way—as happens sometimes—the feelings in the community and the misunderstandings concerning matters which might look right from Stormont Castle or from Lisburn. There is sometimes a misunderstanding in the community about what is being done and, so far, I think that the incident centres have been of value.

Photo of Mr Michael McNair-Wilson Mr Michael McNair-Wilson , Newbury

I understand that 174 civilians have been killed since the beginning of the cease-fire. That is as high a figure as for 1972. In that situation, and in view of the grim toll of deaths among Service men and policemen, will the Secretary of State say what he thinks the cease-fire has achieved that would not have been achieved if the same level of security had been maintained as existed in 1974? In terms of sectarian gangsterism, will the Secretary of State say how effective the RUC's A Squad has been?

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

As hon. Members will know, a few days ago I published some figures which I thought might be useful in respect of this matter. There has been a change in the nature of violence, although there has been some return to the old style of violence in recent weeks.

As much as I am prepared to lay at the door of the Provisional IRA anything that it does, the sectarian murders do not merely involve Republican organisations. In this respect the score weighs more heavily on so-called Loyalist groups, and that cannot be put at the door of the Provisional IRA's cease-fire. It is a changing situation, and in it I am convinced that we must respond to the nature of the violence.

I am heartened by the reports I receive concerning the minority community's feeling about my policy on detention, and the reaction coming from them now in terms of giving information to the police, and so on—reports which I have received from many people.

There are hard areas, and murderers, on both sides. I am not giving a message of hope; I am saying that this development is interesting and that we all ought to take into account the changed nature of the violence and the points that the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart) raised earlier.

Photo of Mr Kevin McNamara Mr Kevin McNamara , Kingston upon Hull Central

Will my right hon. Friend note that over the many years in which I have been interested in this problem I have had only two letters—both before direct rule—complaining about conviction, but that since detention has begun to be phased out I have not had one complaint at all about any conviction that has gone through the ordinary courts of law? Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is significant, in view of the fact that I have correspondence from both communities on these matters? Will he, therefore, continue with his policy of using the courts and legal procedures, and get rid of an iniquity which can affect both communities and, on many occasions, cause great suspicion of the policy of Her Majesty's Government and those who seek peace?

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

I agree fully with my hon. Friend. It is sometimes easy to try to share one's difficulties. But I must say that if there is a return to the day-to-day violence and the bombing in the middle of towns and villages around Belfast, with activities by brigades and battalions on a consistent scale, I am afraid that the use of normal methods, through the police, will not be enough. Whether there is a return to detention is a matter for those who perpetrate outrages. Her Majesty's Government do not want to return to detention; they want to end detention. Whether or not it was right or wrong to have detention in the first instance, it was a response to urban guerrilla warfare and to the 15,000 injured and the 1,500 dead in the Province. I do not want to return to it. I have given an earnest of my intention, but other people can play their part in that, as well.