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Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 11:30 pm on 10th December 1980.

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Photo of Mr Humphrey Atkins Mr Humphrey Atkins , Spelthorne 11:30 pm, 10th December 1980

I beg to move, That the draft Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1978 (Continuance) (No. 2) Order 1980, which was laid before this House on 3 December, be approved. We have only one and a half hours for this debate but, nevertheless, I think that the House will expect me to follow the usual custom on these occasions and review the state of law and order in Northern Ireland as well as explaining the reasons why I am inviting the House to approve the order tonight.

Overall, the level of violence in Northern Ireland has continued to decline in 1980. Compared with the figures for last year, the number of deaths has fallen by one-third and the number of injuries is also substantially lower. Explosive attacks are down by about one-third and the number of shooting attacks is lower than last year. Of course, the figures; are still deplorably high and each incident represents an intense tragedy for the victims and their families which no statistics can possibly disguise.

The terrorists are no nearer achieving their objectives than they ever were. I do not think that anyone will wonder at that if we consider one of the most recent examples—only yesterday—when terrorists prepared an elaborate ambush for policemen, drew the policemen into that ambush, fired on them, injuring three of them, and shot an innocent woman bystander in the back in the meantime. They have no regard for human life whatever, whoever it is. It is small wonder that they are being increasingly rejected by the community.

As for their so-called "political" philosophy, such as it is, it has been shown to be totally irrelevant to the reality and immediacy of the problems that the people of the Province face. I cannot pretend to the House, however, that the problems are over. These people still have a capability to cause death and destruction, and I am afraid that they will continue to attempt to grab the headlines with outrageous acts.

I have been especially concerned in recent months by the increase in the number of seemingly sectarian attacks. I condemn unreservedly and without hestitation all those who commit violent acts, whoever they are and whatever so-called cause they claim. Let them be in no doubt that the security forces will continue to act impartially and resolutely against all who break the law, whatever their political and religious persuasions. I say the same to those who threaten to take the law into their own hands to deal with particular groups of terrorists.

Anyone who steps outside the law, for whatever reason, will find that the security forces will act against him. It is for them, and them alone, to enforce the law. They have become increasingly successful at this, which in my view shows that the policies we have been following for some time are right. I am sometimes urged to take more extreme measures, but I believe, if I were to do that, that I would destroy the free society we are trying to protect and at the same time give a fresh impetus to the terrorist campaign.

The best way forward continues to be the enforcement of the law according to the law, with the police in the lead, supported by the Army as necessary. This involves the slow and painstaking investigation of crime, the arrest of those responsible, the bringing of charges in the courts and the proving of those charges in the courts according to the law.

The process is not dramatic and, unfortunately, is seldom prominent in the media. But its effectiveness is clear. So far this year, for example, 539 people have been charged with scheduled offences, including 62 with murder. The police are managing to bring to court not only those who have committed offences recently but those who were responsible for crimes committed a number of years ago.

The demands made on the RUC and the Army every day in the course of their work are considerable. Not only are they subjected to murderous attacks, but there are those who are always trying to provoke or defame them. Yet the professionalism, courage and dedication with which they carry out their duties remain undiminished. I pay tribute once again to the skill and fortitude of the men and women in the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the RUC Reserve, the Regular Army and the Ulster Defence Regiment.

I am also very encouraged by the evidence of increasing acceptance by the minority community of the RUC as the legitimate upholders of the law and as a fair and reliable force they can turn to when necessary. This growing acceptability is itself a tribute to the impartiality and professionalism of the RUC. I want also to thank the police and the Army for their help with the temporary prison which has been necessary to ensure public safety during the industrial action by the Prison Officers Association. It is a mark of their dependability that security operations in the Province as a whole have been unaffected by this additional burden on them.

The RUC continues to grow in strength and capability. At the end of November the regular force stood at 6,874, well on the way to the target strength of 7,500. The police authority is engaged in a major building programme for the RUC. The force has a fleet of almost 1,500 vehicles; and a varied programme of equipment purchases has been designed to keep the RUC abreast of advancing technology. In addition, a force-wide computerised teleprinter service, now in operation, is designed in particular to increase the force's reaction speed and to facilitate the collation and retrieval of information. The police service is matching this increased capability with a growing sensitivity to the needs of the community.

The extension of normal policing, the growth in the size and capability of the RUC and, of course, the decline in the overall level of violence have allowed us to make significant reductions this year in Army force levels. It has always been our policy not to keep more troops in the Province, over and above the normal garrison, than the security situation demands. The Army remains fully capable of providing the RUC with such military support as it continues to need. Naturally, the reductions have been made in those parts of the Province, such as the centre of Belfast, where we are confident that the police can cope without the Regular Army's immediate support in strength. In the border areas the Army's strength is relatively much greater and, in addition, the RUC is working closely with its colleagues in the Republic, who have had notable successes recently.

The House will be aware that there have been a number of marches and demonstrations recently, supposedly in support of the prisoners on hunger strike. This support is misguided, but the Government recognise that everyone has a right to express his view, provided always that he does so peacefully and unprovocatively. I am glad to say that most of these demonstrations have passed off peacefully. The police have used their usual tact and discretion in handling them; and they will continue to do so. But I must warn the House that there are those in the Province who may—I believe will—seek to engineer confrontations either with other sections of the community or with the security forces themselves. Their intention will be to further their own ends by violence. I hope that demonstrators will think twice about being blatantly used in this way and that they will not allow their feelings to be manipulated into support for completely different objectives from their own. The security forces will, of course, be prepared to take firm action if, in the professional judgment of their commanders, this becomes necessary to preserve the peace.

As for the prison hunger strike itself, the House will be aware that seven men are in the seventh week of their hunger strike at the Maze prison and that they were all moved to the prison hospital on 2 December to enable the medical staff to keep closer medical surveillance over them. Three women prisoners at Armagh started to refuse food on 1 December. The seven men are continuing to lose weight. So far the position remains that their condition is not giving cause for serious concern, but if they persist in their refusal of food it may not be long before we begin to see signs of substantial deterioration.

The prisoners have made it plain that the object of their strike is to secure political status. The Government have made it quite clear that they cannot and will not concede that status and that they have already provided a humanitarian prison regime but that they are ready to consider genuine ideas for improvement in the regime for all prisoners from those who share their concern.

We must not lose sight of one basic fact. The protest movement within the prisons, from which the hunger strike stems, is one important arm in the strategy of the Provisional IRA. Its struggle to destroy law and order and overthrow democratic institutions in Northern Ireland does not stop at the prison gates; it is continued through other means inside. The protest is designed to contribute to its objective of securing political legitimacy for a movement whose only weapon is violence. It is also part of a wider attempt to discredit the measures that the Government have been compelled to introduce to protect society from terrorism. These, of course, are the measures that we are here to discuss and, I hope, renew today.

It is right that people should question the Government closely on the need for the powers in the Emergency Provisions Act. Over recent years, the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights has played an important role in analysing these powers and the Governmant's use of them, and in come cases recommending; that they should be changed or dropped. We welcome constructive criticism of that kind, even when we have not been able to follow it in practice. However, from the terrorists and those who support them and their methods of persuasion I am not prepared to accept that line of criticism. It would be absurd if the Government, after introducing certain measures to deal with terrorist intimidation and other criminal practices, were moved to withdraw these measures in response to complaints from the terrorists themselves.

There is one way in which the Provisional IRA and other organisations can most quickly contribute to the dismantling of the temporary legislation that we have to deal will the emergency—that is, to give up violence and take the path of democracy. They might recognise at the same time that they have by their evil activities immeasurably set back the legitimate political aspirations of the people whom they purport to serve. In the same way, I might add, the protest movement and the hunger strike inside the prison have complicated the Government's efforts to introduce progressively an improved regime, simply because heightened tensions invariably slow down progress. Nevertheless, this Government, like their predecessors, take seriously their obligation lo subject the emergency powers to thorough inspection, with a view to allowing any that are not still essential to lapse. As the House will recollect, the power of detention was allowed to lapse in this way six months ago. As the position improves and further opportunities arise, we shall take them.

The sections of the Act to which objection is most commonly taken today are all associated with the functions of the courts. They are the terms on which judges consider applications for bail in the High Court, in section 2: the rules governing the admissibility of statements by suspected persons in the case of allegations of ill treatment while under interrogation, in section 8; and the regime' of the so-called Diplock courts, where judges sit without juries, in section 7. The first two points have been so thoroughly discussed in these debates in the past 18 months that I shall not tonight again rehearse the Government's arguments for retaining the provisions in their present form at this point. I shall only say on bail that the position has not changed, except to the extent that I have noticed that the High Court grants bail to suspected persons in a very significant number of scheduled cases. On the admissibility of statements, I have again noticed that the courts on occasion find reason to stop a trial on the ground that the prosecution has not fully discharged the obligation put upon it in the Act to disprove an allegation that ill treatment took place.