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Northern Ireland (Prisons)

– in the House of Commons at 10:58 am on 19th December 1980.

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Photo of Mr Humphrey Atkins Mr Humphrey Atkins , Spelthorne 10:58 am, 19th December 1980

I will, with permission, Mr. Speaker, make a statement about the position in Northern Ireland prisons.

The seven Republican prisoners, who were in the fifty-third day of their hunger strike yesterday, have begun to take food. This includes the one prisoner who had been moved to Musgrave Park hospital in view of his grave condition. In addition, I can confirm that every prisoner at the Maze took breakfast this morning.

This is most welcome news. The hunger strike could not achieve its objects, and it is encouraging that the influence of all those who sought to persuade the prisoners of that fact was finally effective.

I sincerely hope that the same conclusion will be drawn by all prisoners, men and women, who have been protesting in the cause of political status, including the three remaining hunger strikers at Armagh.

With the full support of the House, the Government have made it clear all along that they were not prepared to grant political status. The European Commission of Human Rights considered the case for political status made to it by the protesters and rejected it. It asked the Government to keep the humanitarian aspects of the prison regime under continuing review. We responded positively to that request with the changes in the spring and summer which I repeated in my statement of 4 December. That remains in every particular the Government's position.

Yesterday, I sent into the Maze and Armagh prisons a summary based on the Government's statement of 4 December which set out what will happen. A copy of that summary, which I shall be repeating in a broadcast to the people of Northern Ireland later today, has been given to every protesting prisoner. I shall arrange for the text to be printed in the Official Report.

The Government earnestly hope that the knowledge of what will happen when the protests end will lead all the prisoners concerned to stop all their protests.

Photo of Mr Don Concannon Mr Don Concannon , Mansfield

On behalf of the Opposition, I welcome the statement and the good news that it contains. I refer not only to the good news that the lives of the seven protesters will be saved but also to the possibility that other lives will now be saved both over the Christmas period and later on. I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman acknowledged that this was largely a House of Commons matter and that the Opposition have been constructive and helpful throughout. The statement is good news and we welcome it.

However, we should like a few assurances. Where do we go from here? As regards the summary that has been sent into the prison, based on the statement of 4 December, may we have an assurance that those privileges will appertain only if prisoners stop the dirty protest and accept prison rules? Prisoners in Northern Ireland have far greater privileges than prisoners in the rest of the United Kingdom. The Opposition are in favour of prison reform, but it must be made on a certain basis. I hope that the Secretary of State will confirm that privileges will not be given until the dirty protest has come to an end.

I have great experience of Northern Ireland and I have met thousands of people who belong to the minority faith. Quite a lot of them are personal friends of mine. The view expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) is far more representative of the views of those who belong to the minority faith than many have claimed. I wish that the House would take more notice of my hon. Friend's views. On those grounds, we welcome the Secretary of State's news. It would be churlish not to congratulate the right hon. Gentleman, who has just gone through a very difficult period.

Photo of Mr Humphrey Atkins Mr Humphrey Atkins , Spelthorne

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his remarks. I am sure that he spoke for the whole House when he welcomed the news that I announced. As he said, the vast majority in Northern Ireland welcome the news and are greatly relieved. There is no doubt that there was tension in the community and that people were fearful about what might happen. We are all delighted that that tension has been removed.

The Government were greatly helped by the knowledge that the House of Commons supported the position that we have maintained throughout this unhappy affair. I confirm that the privileges referred to in my statement of 4 December apply only to those prisoners who conform to prison rules.

Photo of Mr James Molyneaux Mr James Molyneaux , South Antrim

In view of the firm assurance that the Prime Minister gave me yesterday during Question Time, can the Secretary of State give an equally firm assurance that the phrase "what will happen" will not leave the way open for further concessions?

Photo of Mr Humphrey Atkins Mr Humphrey Atkins , Spelthorne

Yes, Sir. I refer the hon. Gentleman to the statement that I have just made. In relation to the Government statement of 4 December, I said: That remains in every particular the Government's position. As regards further alterations in the regime, that is a matter for the future. I have repeatedly said that the Government keep under review the regime in Northern Ireland prisons. As time goes by, it may be possible to make further improvements.

Photo of Ian Paisley Ian Paisley Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party

Does not the right hon. Gentleman remember that in his written answer of 4 December he listed the hunger strikers' specific demands? He said that the Government would not give in to those demands. Those demands were to wear their own clothes, to refrain from prison work, to associate freely with one another, to organise recreational facilities and have one letter, visit and parcel per week, and to have lost remission fully restored. Will the right hon. Gentleman explain the difference between the stand that the Government took then and the stand taken in the 30-page document that has been released to the heads of Churches and to prison chaplains? Is it not true that the document shows a considerable weakening on those five specific points?

Photo of Mr Humphrey Atkins Mr Humphrey Atkins , Spelthorne

That is not the case. On 4 December I gave a written answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Marland) and at the same time I placed this document in the Library. There is no difference between the two.

Photo of Mr Enoch Powell Mr Enoch Powell , South Down

What was the purpose of the statement that the right hon. Gentleman was going to make today, before the strike was terminated, if it was not to make it possible for the strikers to end their strike, if not with a victory, at least with a draw? If it is the right hon. Gentleman's continuing purpose to use his office in conjuction with the Foreign Office to undermine the Union and Ulster's place in it would he not be better out of it?

Photo of Mr Humphrey Atkins Mr Humphrey Atkins , Spelthorne

The last part of that question does not really deserve an answer. As regards the first part, in the statement that I would have made I would have informed the House that I intended to send into the prisons the document to which I have referred and that I would broadcast to the people of Northern Ireland later today. I would have sought to get the support of the House in urging everybody to end the protest. Most of the hunger strikers have ended their protests, but I urge those who are still making any kind of protest to bring it to an end.

Photo of Mr James Kilfedder Mr James Kilfedder , North Down

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the decent, law-abiding people of Northern Ireland, who are in the eleventh year of their agony, will take great heart from the Prime Minister's courage and firmness and from the support that the House has shown for the Ulster people by rebuffing the IRA terrorist hunger strikers? Those hunger strikers tried to use the occasion as a propaganda exercise to gather support and funds, which have been dwindling. I hope that that message will be heard throughout the world, particularly in the United States of America.

Photo of Mr Humphrey Atkins Mr Humphrey Atkins , Spelthorne

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for those remarks and I will draw them to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. I agree that the Provisional IRA's claim that the so-called motive for the hideous crimes that it commits somehow deserves special treatment has been completely rejected, not only by the House but by the people of Northern Ireland.

Photo of Mr Russell Johnston Mr Russell Johnston , Inverness

Is the Secretary of State aware that we share his relief that these events are over? We also commend him on the steadfastness that he has shown during a period that must have been terribly difficult for him. We hope that he will assure us that the constructive attitude that has permeated everything he has said this morning means that we can hope for a clean slate.

Photo of Mr Humphrey Atkins Mr Humphrey Atkins , Spelthorne

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks. I hope that the blanket protest, the dirty protest and all the hunger strikes will come to an end so that a normal regime can be returned to in the Maze and Armagh prisons. It is easier to run a good and humane prison regime when things are operating normally than when disturbances are going on. If the protests are brought to an end, we shall be able to run such a regime.

Several Hon. Members:


Photo of Mr George Thomas Mr George Thomas , Cardiff West

Order. I propose to call those hon. Members who have been rising in their places. We shall then return to the Adjournment debates.

Photo of Mr John Biggs-Davison Mr John Biggs-Davison , Epping Forest

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the whole House congratulates Her Majesty's Government on their constancy, which has been reflected in the helpful attitude of our European partners in the European Assembly? Will he tender the admiration of the whole House to the Northern Ireland prison service, which has lost 19 men? They were murdered in cold blood by the sort of men for whom they have shown great concern. We care about human life and they do not.

Photo of Mr Humphrey Atkins Mr Humphrey Atkins , Spelthorne

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks about the prison service. I entirely endorse everything that he said. Those in the service have shown steadfastness and courage in dealing with an extremely difficult situation within the prisons and an unnerving situation outside which commands our admiration. As I have said, the Government have been helped by the steadfastness of the House of Commons. However, there is no doubt that it has been helpful to know that the European countries have shared our view that murder is murder no matter what the motive.

Photo of Mr Gerry Fitt Mr Gerry Fitt , Belfast West

Does the Secretary of State accept that now is not the time to claim either victory or defeat? Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom have emerged from a difficult period and from a crisis. However, confusion exists. Will the right hon. Gentleman give an undertaking that those who are convicted of terrorist crimes, be they Republican or Unionist—those who are convicted of killing, maiming and using weapons to further their own political ends—will in no circumstances be given any treatment different from that which is afforded to any other criminals in the prisons in Northern Ireland? That undertaking must be given to the people of Northern Ireland

Photo of Mr Humphrey Atkins Mr Humphrey Atkins , Spelthorne

I am happy to give that undertaking in an absolutely unqualified way. There will be no differential treatment between one sort of prisoner and another. Anyone who is sentenced to prison by the courts will be treated in exactly the same way as anyone else. I agree with the hon. Gentleman about his present feelings. My feeling is one of thankfulness that it is over. The hon. Gentleman's position over the past few weeks has been an enormous help in resolving the problem.

Photo of Peter Viggers Peter Viggers , Gosport

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, contrary to the view expressed in some quarters, it is necessary to continue discussions with the Government of Eire in view of the expressed intention of the Provisional IRA to destroy democratic institutions in both the North and the South?

Photo of Mr Humphrey Atkins Mr Humphrey Atkins , Spelthorne

Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend. As he will remember from the communiqué issued after the most recent meeting between my right hon. Friend and the Taoiseach, it is planned to continue regular contact with that country.

Photo of Mr Jock Stallard Mr Jock Stallard , Camden St Pancras North

Will the Secretary of State accept congratulations, too, from those of us who are members of the Back Bench committees, who take an interest in political initiatives and who are hopeful of the initiatives making progress? May I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we all share his relief at the outcome of the most recent initiative? We do not criticise him for sending a statement. If there was a statement sent in yesterday, we welcome that, too. The only victory in the present conflict is one for common sense and Christian compassion.

Will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind, while we still have some Christian compassion left in the season of good will, the victims who have suffered so far in this terrible tragedy? Does he agree that in the forthcoming 12 months we should resolve to redouble our efforts to find a political solution to the problem? Let us take the necessary political initiatives if that means following up the recent discussions in Dublin to improve the relationship between us and the Republic in trying to find a joint solution to the problems of Northern Ireland.

Photo of Mr Humphrey Atkins Mr Humphrey Atkins , Spelthorne

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his expression of support for what the Government are seeking to do. I believe that, with the relaxation of tension on this issue which I hope will come in Northern Ireland, the various ways of making progress in the Province will be easier.

Photo of Mr Cyril Townsend Mr Cyril Townsend , Bexley Bexleyheath

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there will be widespread relief that the grotesque mass suicide pact has been abandoned? There was some evidence that IRA activities were being curtailed while it was on. Is it the view of my right hon. Friend's security advisers that there is now an increased risk of such activity in Northern Ireland and in Greater London?

Photo of Mr Humphrey Atkins Mr Humphrey Atkins , Spelthorne

The immediate effect of the ending of the hunger strike and, as I hope, of the whole protest will be a lowering of tension in Northern Ireland. I have not yet had time to consult the chief constable and my other security advisers in Northern Ireland, but I shall do so during the course of today.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson , Belfast East

Will the right hon. Gentleman clarify whether the document that he held in his hands a short time ago and is to have published in the Official Report is the same 30-page document as some considerable time ago he put in the hands of Church leaders and in the hands of the prisoners? If it is that same document, are there not further concessions both on work and on clothing?

Photo of Mr Humphrey Atkins Mr Humphrey Atkins , Spelthorne

It is the same document. I have it before me. It is the document that I placed in the Library of the House of Commons on 4 December,. If the hon. Gentleman cares to study it, he will find no difference between it and my statement of 4 December, save that there is much greater detail.

Several Hon. Members:


Photo of Mr George Thomas Mr George Thomas , Cardiff West

Order. We shall now return to the Adjournment debates. We have lost a quarter of an hour of Adjournment time. However, I have made allowances for that. I suggest that a period of seven and a half minutes be taken from the Adjournment on Anglo-Canadian relations and seven and a half minutes from the debate on the BBC licence fee. The two debates will each be seven and a half minutes shorter than the time that appears on the Order Paper.

Following is the text of the broadcast:On 4 December the Government set out clearly what is available to all prisoners in Northern Ireland prisons.We hoped that this would bring an end to all the protests.Two more weeks have passed.The protests continue, though I am pleased that the seven original hunger strikers have decided to end their fast. They must have grasped that there could be no question of the Government granting their demand for political status. The European Commission of Human Rights has considered the case made to it by the protesters for political status, and has rejected it.The Commission asked the Government to keep the humanitarian aspects of the prison regime under continuing review. The Government responded positively to that request with the changes on nine specific points, which I set forth in detail in my statement to the House of Commons on 4 December. It has always been our concern that these protests and the hunger strike should not lead to pointless deaths. To the protesters and those still on hunger strike I want to say 'There is no reason to go on. The Government has made its response. I want to spell out for you and your families what will happen when the protests end.First of all, any such prisoner will be put into a clean cell.If, as I hope, all prisoners end their protests, we shall have the task of cleaning up all the cells right away, and this would take a week or 10 days.Within a few days clothing provided by their families will be given to any prisoners giving up their protest, so that they can wear it during recreation. association and visits. As soon as possible all prisoners will be issued with civilian-type clothing for wear during the working day. From then on, as I said in October, denim prison uniform becomes a thing of the past for all prisoners.They will also immediately become entitled every month to eight letters, four parcels and four visits.Prisoners who end their protest will be able to associate within each wing of the prison blocks in the evening and at weekends.If large groups of prisoners cease their protest simultaneously, a few days may be needed for cleaning up.We want to work out for every prisoner the kinds of available activity which we think suit him best—work (including of course the work of servicing the prison itself), vocational training and educational training.Again, if groups of prisoners come off the protest together, getting this programme organised will take some time.On the question of remission—and this will be of special importance to the prisoners' families—provision already exists for lost remission to be restored after subsequent good behaviour. We shall immediately start reviewing each case individually.Our position is clear. We do not want any prisoners to die: but if those still on hunger strike persist they will not be forcibly fed.If they die, it will be from their own choice. If they choose to live, the conditions available to them meet in a practical and humane way the kind of things they have been asking for. But we shall not let the way we run the prisons be determined by hunger strikes or any other threat.Northern Ireland prisons are acknowledged to include some of the best in the United Kingdom. The boards of visitors will continue to play their part in maintaining this position. For our part we will, subject to the overriding requirements of security, keep prison conditions—and that includes clothing, work, association, education, training and remission—under continuing review.It is the Government's earnest wish that, in the light of these possibilities, all prisoners now protesting in one form or another will bring their protest to an end.The time to stop is now.