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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

There is every chance that we can change he policy if the security situation improves. I have already said that we can dismantle the whole apparatus. If the terrorists would turn from the path of violence to that of democracy, we could do so at once. If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to continue, he will see that I say at the end that I do not recommend that we should do it now.

The comments about these courts go to the heart of what I have said about the terrorists bringing these provisions upon themselves. The system of Diplock courts exists because jurymen, like witnesses, have been scared away from doing their duty by threats to their safety. What is fundamental is the nature of the crime. Murder is murder, whatever the motive. Acts involving explosives or firearms are not less harmful because they have a political aim. They are just as harmful and abhorrent, whatever their aim. That is the fundamental yardstick by which we judge them. And that is more important than the fact that, in order lo meet terrorist methods, we have had to introduce some variations from the normal into the, system. But there is no variation in the standard of justice. Besides, what variations there are are compensated for by a number of safeguards.

One such safeguard is the full application of the recommendations of the Bennett committee on police interrogation procedures and practices. These are more far-reaching than the regulations applied in other parts of the United Kingdom—indeed, than probably anywhere else in the world. It is a further safeguard that every complaint of ill treatment is fully considered by the Director of Public Prosecutions there is no element of discretion here. I would also regard the consideration of all bail applications in scheduled cases by the High Court, rather than the magistrates' court, as a safeguard—as is undoubtedly the unfettered right of appeal from conviction and sentence in scheduled cases.

I therefore have no qualms about asking the House to continue the temporary provisions so long as the objective need seems clear. I recognise that there is a wider dimension. However fully justified the provisions may be, considered purely as a response to terrorist activity, it remains true that their effects spill over much more widely within the community. There are social and political consequences which need to be balanced against the requirements of law and order.

I know also that there is a sort of inertia about these matters. It is easier to continue to shelter behind these powers than to determine at a certain point that they are dispensable. But I can assure the House that the Government are most conscious that these powers are merely temporary. When the Act was passed, Parliament intended that they should not be permanent, and the sooner we can return to a state of complete normality in Northern Ireland, the better However, in the circumstances that prevail in Northern Ireland today, I am not able to recommend that any of the provisions should be allowed to lapse at this moment.

The situation in Northern Ireland is still a very sensitive one. I know that the House will share my view that it is essential to confront these problems calmly and to say and do nothing that would inflame passions. I am committed to the welfare and protection of every citizen of the Province, and I am sure that other hon. Members will approach this debate from the same point of view.

I invite the House to approve the motion.