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At this late stage, and because there are others who wish to speak, I shall try to be brief. It is difficult. I make the obvious complaint about the shortness of the debate and the lateness of the hour.
The Secretary of State will not be surprised to hear that I am disappointed that he has decided not to amend or reform the emergency provisions legislation. There are points of view other than those that have been expressed tonight. That is not to say that anyone in the House condones the heinous crimes and terrible acts of violence that we have heard about tonight from the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) and the Secretary of State. No one could condone that sort of conduct or those crimes. Those who are seeking a peaceful political solution to the problem have no time for that sort of activity. But that is not to say that we necessarily agree with all those who have spoken this evening.
I am extremely disappointed that the Prime Minister has not seen fit to make a statement to the House about the meeting in Dublin. We are all concerned and interested in the meeting. It will be unfortunate, to say the least, if we read about the debate that has taken place in the Dail and then our Prime Minister has to refute the version given in that Assembly or to give her version. It would have been far better for all concerned, especially in the sensitive position in which we find ourselves, if she had made a statement, as would normally have been the case, when she returned from the meeting. I cannot understand why she is being so coy. I for one would have wished to congratulate her on the initiative and to welcome any progress that was made towards improvements coming about between the Government of the Republic and our Government. I do not know whether that will entice her to say something—perhaps that is why she did not say anything—but it is perfectly true.
From the Labour side of the House, there have been many attempts to amend and reform this legislation. We tried to persuade all Governments to amend the emergency legislation, especially that which applies to the Six Counties. Those attempts had the support of prominent academics from both sides of the Irish Sea, of Amnesty International, of the British people and even of the Government's own appointed Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights. They all supported, for good reasons, different attempts to amend or reform the Act. The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Biggs-Davison) referred to "Ten Years On In Ireland". Further suggestions are contained in that publication. If I had time, I would debate them. There are six suggestions in that small book that merit serious consideration.
It is said that there are some inside and outside the House who have forgotten about the provisions contained in the Act. The serious attacks on civil liberties in the Act have become almost a permanent feature of the legislative process. That certainly applies in Northern Ireland, and there is a danger of a spill-over into our own legislation if we are not careful.
We should remind ourselves briefly of the provisions that we are discussing. They include three-day and seven-day security detention, permission for the security forces to arrest for questioning, provision for a judge to sit by himself in a court handling terrorist charges, the reversal of the burden of proof in respect of bail applications when the accused is charged with being in possession of proscribed articles, and the alteration of the rules on the admissibility of statements by accused persons. As Peter Taylor puts it in another excellent publication, that gave the green light for Castlereagh.
These are serious issues that we should not gloss over lightly by listing a catalogue of dramatic incidents. We should remind ourselves from time to time of the seriousness of the attacks on civil liberties that are inherent in the Act. The system of conviction that it permits is without precedent. All the normal procedures for arrest, interrogation, admissibility of confessions and jury trial have been abrogated in Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State referred to terrorists. We hear the words "terrorists" and "terrorism" bandied about all over the place. Section 31 of the 1978 Act states:
'Terrorism' means the use of violence for political ends and includes any use of violence for the purpose of putting the public or any section of the public in fear.
It refers to political ends. It is significant that that is the definition.
Can we say that all the special procedures and the special courts, plus the special definition of the individual who commits the crime, may be set on one side and that the man who comes out at the end of it all is not also special? I heard no word of complaint when the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland introduced the special category status. It was accepted that there was something special. Since then we have erected a special legislative process to deal with it. We are being totally illogical if we now say that there is not something special. Of course, there are not many who will say that too loudly for fear of being accused of being on the side of the others. It is utter nonsense. We are being illogical until we discuss the issue openly in a forum such as the Chamber. Until we do that, we will not begin to understand the form and nature of the protests.
Many of those who have gone through the special process—I am not talking of the more dramatic, terrible and awful crimes of which we have heard during the debate—might have been found not guilty in the normal courts of law. We read almost daily of cases in which there is doubt. Even among the strikers, there are one or two of whom it could be said that there would be doubts if they had followed the normal processes of the law.
We have, responsibility for erecting these special frontiers, and we introduced the special processes and categories in the first place. At this moment there are still 370 men, close by the men who are on hunger strike, who are still on special category status. They are guilty of exactly the same crimes to which we have referred this evening. They live in compounds, wear no uniform, do no work, associate freely and enjoy frequent visits, parcels and so on. If it is asked why this should be so, the reply is "Well, they committed their crimes on the clay before we decided that such people would be treated differently." A lot of people cannot understand the logic of the special processes, the special category and then a special cut-off date.
Such a system was bound to create anomalies, and it has done. I wish to quote from a letter which appeared in The Times on 5 December, written by Canon John Austin Baker, of Westminster Abbey. He said, in relation to this point:
We have not escaped the anomalies created by special category status simply by decreeing its abolition.
It is absolutely true that we have not done so We have to face up to this fact, particularly in the current situation. It is not just a question of having a discussion in a drawing room of the type we have had in the previous hour or so. We are facing probably the most tragic situation that has existed in Northern Ireland since the start of these present troubles. We should treat it by looking for solutions instead of patting each other on the back, saying how well we are doing.
It is in that vein that I hope we shall have another look; at this problem The letter in The Times made some other tailing points and is well worth reading. I hope that the Secretary of State will have had the chance of reading it and will refer to it. I would hate to do the canon an injustice by picking bits of the letter out of context rather than reading the whole of it. It is an extremely interesting and important letter. Others have spoken in the same vein.
The Guardian said in a leader on 1 December:
Is either side's avowal of principle a good enough cause for the deaths not only of the prisoners but of the many others who, it seems inevitable, will die in the resulting inter-sectarian terror? The question is not rhetorical. It may be that by taking a stand now the Government will make itself more credible in the ultimate defeat of the IRA, that instead of gaining prestige the IRA will lose it. But that is a large gamble. It seems more likely that even moderate opinion in the Irish Republic will be estranged, that the conditions of the hunger strikers will be misrepresented abroad, especially in the United States, and that a new generation of martyrs will succeed in setting back the peaceful evolution of the province and of Ireland by yet another decade.
That is a very important leading article. With that I would include the efforts of the cardinal archbishop of Armagh, who made very early attempts to try to find a humane solution and had discussions with the Secretary of Stale. We did not gel a report on those discussions. We read
some versions of them in some newspapers. I believe from what I have heard and what I know that he genuinely tried to find a solution that would avoid further bloodshed. I believe that the Government have a duty to protect all their citizens.
In the words of Canon Baker,
If charity to the few can protect the many from indiscriminate tragedies of community conflict, then a balanced moral judgment will show that charity.
I recommend that the Secretary of State has another think about this matter. I have written to him and to the Prime Minister suggesting that they ought to think seriously—[Interruption.] Far more seriously than some hon. Members below the Gangway on the Tory Benches. This is no laughing matter, and I say that particularly to those who come in to the Chamber at the last moment. The hon. Member would be far better—perhaps I would be far better not saying what I am thinking.
I have asked the Secretary of State to consider very seriously the appointment of a mediator in view of the intransigence of both sides in this case, to discuss the issue and try to find a solution that would take us out of what may well be the most tragic situation that we have faced for many years.
Because of the shortage of time, I cannot develop all the points that I wanted to make. However, for all these reasons, and because the Government still find it impossible to amend or reform the Act, I shall vote against its renewal tonight, as I have done on previous occasions. Perhaps on another occasion, in another debate held at an earlier hour, I shall be happy to give as many reasons as Government Members may desire.