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Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 11:48 pm on 10th December 1980.

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Photo of Mr Don Concannon Mr Don Concannon , Mansfield 11:48 pm, 10th December 1980

It is obviously right that an Act such as this should be brought before the House for renewal at least every six months. This is a short debate, and already nearly 20 minutes of it have elapsed. I shall therefore try to get through my speech as quickly as I can, and I certainly waive the Opposition's right of reply. From looking around the Chamber, I think that that is what the House would require. Many hon. Members will want to speak.

First, I join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to all our security forces, whether they are the RUC, the Army, the UDR or others. I also extend my sympathy to the victims—and their relatives—whether in the security forces or in the civilian population. The vast majority of that civilian population would like nothing better than to get on with its ordinary daily life under rules of law and order markedly different from those that apply at the moment.

I should have liked to regard the order simply in terms of its renewing the powers and to consider whether the powers are right. It is incumbent upon the Opposition, however, to say something about the H-block hunger strikers.

We do not wish to make this situation any more difficult for the Government. We have no wish to see anyone die as a result of this strike. I met a lot of these gentlemen pretty regularly, and they left me in no doubt whatever about their aims and objects. In fact, they often told me that I could come up with any kind of concessions that I wanted—any kind of gifts, as they put it—but the only thing that mattered was special category or political status. Unless things have altered dramatically, I have no reason to believe that the situation has changed. From what the Secretary of State said tonight, that appears to be the case.

There is always the danger in Northern Ireland—I was always left in no doubt about this as well—of genuine, humanitarian gestures being seen as a sign of weakness. To a great extent, that encourages the strikers, or those who have control over them, to go for the one thing that matters, which is special category status. I am not saying that it is wrong to offer genuine changes in prison conditions, but if that is to be the case they must apply to the prison population as a whole, not just to one category. People ought to understand that it is not a question of prisoners in Northern Ireland catching up with the privileges enjoyed by prisoners in the United Kingdom. It is the other way round. The privileges granted in Northern Ireland—one has only to consider the remission aspect—are much better than those in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Anyone who thinks that the H-blocks are some kind of monstrosity ought to read the May report. The prison service in Northern Ireland is virtually completely new. All the buildings are new and are built on the best lines available. The May report was extremely complimentary about the prisons in Northern Ireland and held up the Northern Ireland prison service as a model for the prison service in Great Britain.

The Opposition certainly stand with the Government in their decision not to allow political status or anything of that nature to the strikers, and agree that they should resist blackmail of this kind. We should remember how we got into this situation in the first place. Special category status came about because the then Government gave way to political strikers and to the same type of blackmail as is taking place today.

I understand why at that time there was a lot of pressure on the Government to give this a chance. It was felt that it might do the trick and stop what was happening in 1970, 1971 and 1972. As a result, we were loaded with special category prisoners, but it did not take long for the House and the powers-that-be to realise what a mistake that was. Anyone involved in these matters at the time will remember that.

The Opposition back the Government in their stand against granting special category status or privileges, and we shall also go along with the Secretary of State if he wishes to make reforms to the whole prison system, as I have outlined.

The bringing forward of the continuance order every six months allows Parliament to scrutinise what can at best be described as exceptional law for exceptional circumstances. It is an Act that all of us, in normal circumstances, would have no part of, but, from what the Secretary of State said, the situation is far from normal. There is a possibility that further trouble lies in store. Whether from the hunger strike, sectarian violence or from other quarters, the threats are real.

After the exchanges in the House yesterday and today, I expected the Secretary of State to damp down feelings about what happened in Dublin. He ought to tell us whether the H-block situation and the hunger strike were discussed. We are particularly concerned about the words in the communiqué covering a range of issues including possible new institutional structures, citizenship rights, security matters, economic matters". The phrase "possible new institutional structures" has caught fire among certain sections of the community in Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State should explain to the people of Northern Ireland what is meant by those words. He must try to ease some of the fears in the Province.

The statement is ambiguous and open to innuendo and misrepresentation. The Secretary of State would do Northern Ireland a favour if he gave us some information about what happened in Dublin. If he thinks that action that might help to end the strike is best kept close to his chest, he has only to say so and the House will accept that it is a security matter and leave it at that.

This leads me reluctantly to the conclusion that this exceptional Act is still needed. That is why the House should renew the powers for another six months. I am one of those who like to ensure that the provisions in the Act are only the minimum necessary for tackling the emergency and run for the shortest possible time.

We should also be aiming, as the situation warrants, to restore the law in Northern Ireland to normality as quickly as we can. Having been involved in a number of renewal debates and having listened to all the advice from various quarters, I know that one tries to judge whether various sections are still necessary against the background of the ever-changing security scene. One tends to go for safety first and is reluctant to make changes for fear of upsetting the whole Act. I understand the reasons. Lives are at stake. If we make a mistake, people will lose their lives.

On one occasion, we had virtually agreed to make certain changes to the Act, but we hurriedly had to change our mind because before we came to the House we had the terrible La Mon massacre. The House would not have understood if we had tried to make changes at that time.

My hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John) suggested in the previous debate that it might be time for another judicial review of the Act. In answer to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. Stallard), the Secretary of State said: The hon. Gentleman is not quite correct. There is a case for rewording section 2. I have admitted that already. I do not think that there is a case for dropping it altogether"— he made the same point tonight— because of the possibility that we might return to the position hat I have described before the emergency arose. We can consider rewording it, but we are not considering that tonight. We are considering whether to renew it or to drop it. It is my judgment that we must keep it for the time being. If amending legislation is produced, we shall consider how best we can deal with it."—[Official Report, 22 July 1980; Vol. 988 c. 433.] Once the Secretary of State starts saying those things, he is admitting that here is a part of the Act that he thinks should be reviewed or rewritten but that he is prepared to leave it in because the practice seems to be going right. All I am saying is that there is also disquiet, imagined or real, about section 8, which deals with the admissibility of statements to the police.

There has recently been a major study of the legal system in Northern Ireland, which has produced a series of criticisms of the judicial process and security policy. It is the view of the Opposition, as was stated in the last debate, that the time is right for another judicial review of t tie Act. The only judicial review of the Act was carried rut in 1974–75 by the Gardiner committee. It led to the phasing out of detention, which I, with many others, welcomed.

There are many, if not all, hon. Members who abhor the need for this type of legislation tonight, but I can assure tie House that those of us—I do not think that there are many of us left in the House—who had the responsibility for carrying out this legislation and for carrying out the detention procedure hated the power it gave to the individual Ministers. The power of one's signature to sign people into detention on intelligence and ether reports is a power that I do not wish to have again. I was told that the first time was the hardest. I can remember that night very clearly, because it certainly was hard. I can assure the House that I never did get used to it. So I and the other Ministers were pleased with the outcome of the Gardiner committee. It gave us another way.

That is why it is the Opposition's view that the time is now right for another review. The terms of reference of that committee in 1974 would be just as suitable again. They were: to consider what provisions and powers, consistent to the maximum extent practicable in the circumstances with the preservation of civil liberties and human rights, are required to deal with terrorism and subversion in Northern Ireland, including provisions for the administration of justice, and to examine the working of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1973; and to make recommendations. My hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd made certain suggestions, as reported in column 440 of the Official Report of 22 July 1980, to the effect that there could be in advantage in appointing as many of the Gardiner committee as were able and willing to serve on the new review. This would be a great advantage. As the Secretary of State said in his opening remarks, the terrorist scene is always moving and has certainly changed since 1974. In fact, the Secretary of State in his opening remarks was still saying that the incidence of terrorism was continuing to decline, but that does not mean that he was net right in anticipating that there could be further problems very shortly.

The first review dealt with the situation as it was in 1974. We need a good review to see whether all the emergency powers are now necessary or are in the right form. Some of the anxieties felt about the Act by outside bodies and by Members of the House could be alleviated. One thing is certain: in succeeding debates the information gained would greatly help the House.

The Minister of State, in his winding-up speech of 22 July 1980, took this as an interesting suggestion and said that he would consider it without commitment. It would be helpful if the Secretary of State could give the House his considered views on this matter tonight so that we may learn whether the Government are any nearer to a decision on this matter. I put that forward as a serious suggestion, because, having had to operate the system, I know how much we favoured the previous report and how it helped us to judge many of the other matters.

The official Opposition will not vote against the order. We feel that it should be enforced for a further six months. However, I cannot help but hark back to the meeting on Monday, because I should have liked the House and the people of Northern Ireland to have been treated with more sympathy and respect. I hope that in his reply the Secretary of State will say whether any reference to the Act was made in Dublin and, if so, whether there were any suggestions that it should be amended, and, if so, how, or whether it should continue in its present form.