Police (Northern Ireland) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:41 pm on 8th November 2000.

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Photo of Lord Mayhew of Twysden Lord Mayhew of Twysden Conservative 5:41 pm, 8th November 2000

My Lords, on 23rd October, on the first day of Committee on this Bill, the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, made a notable and courageous speech. In it he said that the debate on the precursor to Amendment No. 1 was really a debate about the constitution of Northern Ireland. He said that survey after survey showed that many Catholics support the constitutional position of Northern Ireland and that unionists now feel as he did when, in 1968, he marched in support of a campaign to secure civil rights for Northern Ireland under the Stormont regime. He spoke as one who still retained a bloodstained shirt from the blow that he received from the RUC on that occasion. He said that the unionists felt that their entire culture has been taken away from them; that pan-nationalism is ranged against them and that they have no one who can speak in their defence.

The noble Lord said that he spoke as a Catholic; that he spoke with a conscience, and he said,

"I support the retention of the name of the RUC".--[Official Report, 23/10.00; col. 26.]

I recognise that there is a tendency among those of us who have lived for even a few years in Northern Ireland and sometimes less, to speak as though we know it all; and perhaps some of us know some of it. But none of us knows it as the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, and other Members of your Lordships' House know it who live and have always lived in the Province. I believe the noble Lord was right to say that this is essentially a debate about the constitution. No police service, in any democracy, can exercise authority save by virtue of the constitution of the state which it is there to serve. In the case of the RUC that state is, by consent, the United Kingdom.

The RUC therefore is a police service empowered by the Crown. So long as the Union persists, any police service in Northern Ireland, by whatever name we call it, will be and will remain a service empowered by the Crown. As the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, also said, there are also Catholics--no doubt they are in the majority--who are nationalists and object to any jurisdiction of the Crown in Northern Ireland. They continue to object to it notwithstanding the Belfast agreement, and that is their right. They will have nothing to do with the Crown in any of its manifestations.

So it follows that no police service in Northern Ireland empowered by the Crown will ever be seen by Catholics of that opinion as being "their" police service. I pick up the phrase the noble Lord, Lord Sheppard, made much of in his speech, when he spoke so helpfully last time about Liverpool; but nobody who feels like that will feel about any police service that derives its authority from the Crown that it is "their" police service. So they will not join it and in that regard the Government--I regret to say--are in pursuit of a chimera for so long as the Union persists.

Does that put paid to our efforts, which we all share, to add to the number of Catholics in the police? It does not. As the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, again pointed out, there are other powerful factors which inhibit Catholics from joining. The noble Lord, Lord Rogan, adverted to some of them. He cited hideous intimidation; the withholding of endorsement of that profession by the Catholic hierarchy and even by the constitutional nationalist party, the SDLP. He might have added the lack hitherto of the substantial improvements--they constitute about 85 per cent of the recommendations of the Patten report--which are now either already in place or provided for in the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Fitt, in support of his argument, pointed to the surge in Catholic recruitment to the RUC which took place after the cease-fire of August 1994 and to its ebbing away when intimidation seemed to be sustained and much sectarian violence also continued.

On that occasion no answer was put forward from the Government Front Bench to the argument of the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, or other noble Lords who made similar points. I, from my slender experience in comparison with that of the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, believe that there is no answer. As yet we are still invited to adopt a name in which the words Royal Ulster Constabulary will, except in the most formal of legal contexts, by the Government's own design and desire, never be used. The sole purpose is the vain hope of getting more Catholics of a nationalist character, such as I have described, to join the police service, and they will not.

The recommendations of the Patten report have elevated the issue of the name into most dangerous prominence and significance, and I wish that it had not been so. But we are where we are. Like the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, I am deeply worried about the condition and state of the unionist community in Northern Ireland. And by that I do not mean the extremities of that community.

The ferocity with which a change of name is demanded, and with no promise of nationalist support at the end--there are only threats of regression if a change is not made--has reinforced the siege mentality with which so many unionists have for so long been cursed. They see the name of the RUC as an incident of the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, and I wish that it were otherwise. They see the pressure for change as a denial of that status. They see the implementation of a change as a harbinger of the further and worse inroads that they fear. And until there is some beginning to decommissioning, they feel that they have had enough. Those mounting perceptions, and especially the loss of the RUC name, are deeply dangerous to the position of Mr Trimble.

I have the utmost admiration for the courage, perception and wisdom of Mr Mallon in this long process. He is reported as saying that no one is indispensable to the political process in Northern Ireland. I fear that he is wrong. At least one man is and at this juncture it is Mr Trimble. It is now a political imperative that Mr Trimble remains in place. He could not be restored. I believe that that imperative now requires that the amendment be agreed to.