Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:50 am on 10th December 1980.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Humphrey Atkins Mr Humphrey Atkins , Spelthorne 12:50 am, 10th December 1980

With the leave of the House, I shall try in the 10 minutes remaining to reply to the important points raised.

Perhaps I could start by taking up where my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) left off when he was commenting on what the hon. Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. Stallard) said. We must be quite clear about this. The hon. Gentleman suggested that there should be a mediator. That is what the Government are in business to do. We have made our position perfectly clear. On 4 December I answered at some length a question, which appears in Hansard, which made the Government's position absolutely clear and spelt out in considerable detail the regime in the prisons in Northern Ireland. If protesting prisoners conform to the rules, they will enjoy the same privileges as others. We spelt out exactly what that entailed in relation to the demands that they are making.

That is where we stand. I would not want the hon. Gentleman or the House to be under the impression that we are interested in finding a mediator to move between us and the prisoners to see whether we can come to an arrangement. We shall not do that. It is essential to make certain that everybody understands our position. [Interruption.] If the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) will allow me, I shall try to answer the question.

Everyone, including those taking part in the hunger strike, should be absolutely clear what the Government's position is. Therefore, I considered it right that all the prisoners' relatives and all those likely to advise them should be sent copies of the statement but that the prisoners should be personally informed of the Government's position by one of my officials accompanying the governor, who was there quite properly, so that they cannot say that they did not know. I do not want the House to be under any misapprehension.

May I deal with the point that the right hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Concannon) made about Dublin before I deal with the two or three points concerning the Act? He asked three questions about the meeting between my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach in Dublin on Monday. The first was whether the Act that we are discussing tonight had been discussed between them. The answer is "No". It was not mentioned at any of the meetings at which I was present. Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman asked whether the hunger strike was mentioned. The answer is that it was. If he studies the communiqué, he will find that it states that my right hon. Friend and the Taoiseach discussed the matter and issued a joint statement about it.

The right hon. Gentleman then suggested that the phrase "possible new institutional structures" may cause security difficulties and that people may be uncertain about its meaning. He asked me to say a little about it. I am glad to do so. One purpose of the meeting was to see how to develop the unique relationship between our two countries that the two Heads of Government had mentioned when they last met in May. They decided that the right course was to set up a series of joint studies to see how the relationship could best be developed. [Interruption.] I wonder whether the right hon. Member for Down, South will allow me to make my own speech. I hope to cover the points that he raised

I cannot say precisely what ground the joint studies will cover, except that one will cover security. The matter requires further thought among ourselves and with the Government of the Republic.

The phrase is "institutional structures" and not "constitutional structures". We are not contemplating a federal structure, a confederation or anything like that, diminishing the powers of the sovereign Governments. We are considering whether any new arrangements would be helpful to facilitate consultation at all levels—official, ministerial and even parliamentary.

Let us look at it this way. The meeting on Monday was one of a series, similar to those that my right hon. Friend has had with other countries with which we have close relations. That in itself is an institutional structure. They have made it so. It is quite reasonable. We have close cooperation on economic matters. Would it help to formalise that? I do not know yet. None of us knows, but it is exactly the sort of thing that I believe we should be looking at. However, as my right hon. Friend has made clear—it was mentioned that she had—there is no question of federation, confederation or anything of that kind. We are seeking ways of improving relations between the two countries, carrying forward matters of joint interest as efficiently as we can.

I come next to the Act. The hon. Member for St. Pancras, North spoke of amending it and producing a whole range of matters in respect of which it could and possibly should be amended. He told the House that he does not like the Act and will vote against it. One must make an assessment about whether the Act should be continued. Is it generally working and being supported by the people to whom it applies? I think, as I have tried to show, that it is working and is generally supported. That is not to say that it should not be amended and that we should not constantly consider ways in which we ought to do that. I have undertaken that the Government will do so.

I was particularly interested in the suggestion of the right hon. Member for Mansfield about a judicial review, which follows the remarks of the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John) the last time we discussed this matter. We have given quite a lot of thought to the suggestion, and it will require an effort on the part of the Government to ensure that these emergency powers do not stay with us longer than they are needed.

There could well come a point at which it would be useful to have an independent judgment, with the impetus that that would give. But that would assume, I believe, that it had come to be widely thought that the emergency powers no longer met the needs of the case and that pretty drastic reform in one direction or another was called for. An independent judical review could assess then whether that dissatisfaction was well founded and advise the Government on how best to change course. But that is far from the position today.

I think that I can claim that the Government's security policy is on the whole regarded as being the right one and that the emergency powers contained in the Act are what is generally regarded as being necessary to carry it out. If we were to institute an independent review now, that would raise false expectations, on the part both of those who would like to see the powers disappear and of those who feared that they might be dismantled too quickly. That would increase tensions, and this is no moment for doing that. It is an idea that I would prefer to keep in reserve. However, the right hon. Member for Mansfield has put it, forward formally on behalf of the Opposition, and I promise him that I shall pay great attention to what he says and consider it carefully.

The hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) raised the question of the two assessors. It was, of course, considered by Lord Gardiner in his review. He dismissed it on the ground that they would be subject to the same pressures as the jury. However, I note that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned it and I shall look at it again.

What matters tonight is that we should pass the order. I hope that the message will go out, as I believe it does from almost everybody who has spoken, first, that we all abhor violence, second, that we do not recognise a political motive for violence as being valid and, third, that we shall give every support that we can to the security forces, who are doing their utmost on our behalf to overcome the terrorism under which Northern Ireland has lived for too long. I hope that the House will support the order.