Northern Ireland (Terrorism)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:32 pm on 12th March 1990.

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Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson , Belfast East 6:32 pm, 12th March 1990

It is almost 11 years since I was first elected to the House. During that time the nation has had many crises and there have been emergencies of many kinds. I think that other hon. Members who have lived through the experience of those emergencies know that usually there is a sense of urgency among hon. Members throughout the House.

I think that it was the hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Dickens) who came in for the best part of a minute to tell us how few people were in the Chamber and then absented himself for the remainder of the debate. He said that there should be a passion and a feeling of indignation about the emergency that we are dealing with. Having been through the other emergencies, I do not feel the same sense of urgency, passion or indignation in the House today that there has been on other occasions and which there should be on this occasion.

Are the people of the Falklands more important to the House than the people of Northern Ireland? More people have died in Northern Ireland as a result of terrorism than were killed during the Falklands crisis, and yet the House does not show the same urgency and does not accord to Northern Ireland the importance that it should.

Instead of meeting to consider emergency legislation, we just go through what has become a ritual. I think that this ritual is different in one respect from some of the others over the past 13 years, because of the absence of the late Harold McCusker. He contributed fully and passionately to the debates. As a representative of a border constituency, he knew only too well the destructive power of the Provisonal IRA, and he knew of the need for emergency measures to be taken against it. Knowing the circumstances that surrounded him, he left a message to his constituents to be read to them after his death. I think we should listen to his words in the House and take warning from them: I shall carry to my grave with ignominy the sense of the injustice that I have done my constituents down the years—when, in their darkest hours, I exhorted them to put their trust in the British House of Commons which one day would honour its fundamental obligations to them to treat them as equal British citizens. Mr. McCusker had been confident, as I was confident during my early years in politics, that our constituents could be content that the watchful eye and the strong arm of Britain would be looking over them. He and I felt secure in the knowledge that they would protect Northern Ireland against injustice and wrong.

In all my years in politics, the sense of impatience that I felt and my confidence that one day the British Government would come to put right all of those wrongs—both in the constitutional relationship and in the security relationship—have given way to a feeling of impotence. I do not see a desire to defeat terrorism in any of the actions of the Government. The emergency provisions legislation simply marks time. It is a reaction to terrorists, not a vigorous pursuit of terrorism.

Almost 3,000 people have been butchered in Northern Ireland as a result of terrorism. Those killings have not discriminated against people because of religion, sex, or social strata. Because Northern Ireland is such a small community, everyone has felt the impact.

More than 30,000 people have been maimed or mutilated in Northern Ireland as a result of terrorism. Billions of pounds have been lost through subversion. However, all the advice we get is to be calm and cool headed—almost compliant—when we deal with these issues. Our security forces are left to operate against a wartime situation under peacetime conditions.

I join hon. Members who have criticised the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), for his contribution to the debate. Despite the kind words for the security forces—and there were some—the burden of the speech was critical of the security forces. Would that the hon. Gentleman had spent time criticising the Provisional IRA. Coming from someone with his background, that would have been helpful, and it might have had some influence on people who might support the Provisional IRA. Instead, the weight of his time and effort was spent putting down the security forces.

That does not just happen only here. Hon. Members have referred to the Stevens inquiry. Its whole emphasis has been directed away from its original purpose, which was to look into the divulging of certain information arising from a police station at Dunmurry, towards putting the spotlight on the UDR. That has a political purpose—to undermine the regiment. The "Panorama" programme played its full part; so, too, did John Ware, whose reputation I give nothing for, having had experience of him in the past. That was exactly the sort of programme that I would expect from that sort of person.

The UDR is in every way in the front line of the battle against terrorism in Northern Ireland. It is the chief target of the IRA, because its members know the terrorists and the terrain in which they operate. The Ulster Defence Regiment is owed a deep debt of gratitude by the people of Northern Ireland and of the United Kingdom. Its soldiers have acted with fortitude and courage. More than 220 of them—serving soldiers and former members—have been killed as a result of terrorism. Unlike other regiments in the British Army, members of the UDR do not face death only when on patrol or on operations. Because they live in the community they face death coming out of work, or leaving or going to recreational activities—even after they leave the regiment.

I want to issue a word of warning about any future change in this legislation. I know from having spoken to Lord Colville that considerable pressure—from the Labour party and from the SDLP and others in Northern Ireland—has been brought to bear on him to wipe off the statute book the part of the emergency legislation that deals with internment. It can be argued that it has not been used for many years, that this Government lack the political will to use it and that there is no likelihood that it will be used, so it is redundant. I opposed internment when it was introduced, and I have since been justified in my opposition, but I must say that it is a weapon that should be available to Government should they find that nothing else is working in the battle against terrorism. I have heard it argued that if internment became necessary we could legislate for it. That is nonsense: at the first whiff of a rumour that legislation needed to be passed in the House to introduce internment there would be a flight across the border and beyond. As soon as internment is removed from the legislation it will be removed for all time as an effective weapon in the battle against terrorism. On no account should the Government accept any recommendation that this vital element in their hold over the terrorists should be removed from the statute book.

The security situation does not affect merely the lives and limbs of those who live in Northern Ireland and of those who come to the Province as part of the security forces. It also affects the value of life there, not only socially and economically, but constitutionally. In my years in politics I have observed how much major decisions are influenced by circumstances rather than principles, especially by security circumstances. Was it not the Prime Minister who said, after signing the Anglo-Irish Agreement, that she simply could not allow the violence to continue? That was a clear signal that the security circumstances had prompted her political action. The Anglo-Irish Agreement is a product of violence. I ask the Government, when dealing with security and constitutional matters, to do what is right, not what is expedient.