Police (Northern Ireland) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:45 pm on 8th November 2000.

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Photo of Lord Fitt Lord Fitt Other 6:45 pm, 8th November 2000

My Lords, the noble Lord said that he would like to draw the debate on the amendment to a close. I should make some little contribution on this issue. I have said before in the House that I am a Catholic. I hope that I continue to be a Catholic for many years to come or for as long as I live. So this is not particularly a Catholic and Protestant issue in relation to the RUC.

I want to address noble Lords on this side of the House. I do so with a great deal of sensitivity. For many years, as a Member of another place, I was involved in numerous controversial issues. On some matters about which I felt passionately, I was able to enlist many of my friends, some of whom were Left-wing and some of whom were middle-of-the-road. Many times, against the wishes of the government--a Labour government--we took our attitudes to a Division. People did not like it; they were very annoyed that we did so. Sometimes it involved 20, 30 or 40 Members.

That does not happen in this House. I say this with a good deal of regret--and I shall probably not be contradicted. There are many Members on this side of the House who agree with the amendments that have been proposed, and who would have agreed with the attitude I advanced on the Disqualifications Bill. But there is a Whip on this side of the House. Many of those to whom I refer--I know them well and have spoken to them on these issues--were "old Labour" MPs when I was in the House of Commons. I can think of at least half a dozen or a dozen who agree with the amendment. But, whatever they may think about the justification for the Bill, they will not be able to enter the Lobby in support of the amendment.

The same is true of the Liberal Democrat Party. I spoke to a Liberal Democrat yesterday who told me that he agreed with the speech that I made on the Disqualifications Bill. He said: "I should like to support you"--and he put it very crudely--"but we are in bed with Blair". Therefore, the support for the Bill on the Liberal Democrat Benches does not surprise me.

On this side of the House, there is the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and the noble Lord, Lord Desai--who takes an interest in Northern Ireland affairs; and I am grateful for some of the very reasonable statements that he has made. But apart from those two, there must be many Members on this side of the House who have an opinion one way or the other on this great controversy that has been brought about by the proposal to rename the RUC.

The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, has had some service in Northern Ireland. I do not know whether he had his tongue in his cheek when he said: "Isn't it a pity that there is no constitutional nationalist voice in this House?" I will tell him why. Although they have been offered seats here, constitutional nationalists will not come to this House. When I was a member of the SDLP, a constitutional nationalist party, there were some members of that party who took MBEs and OBEs; and, once they accepted them, they were dismissed and thrown out of the SDLP. That is one of the reasons why there is no constitutional nationalist party member in this House. I only wish that there were. I should relish sitting here with some of my former colleagues or other members of the SDLP who could advance the constitutional nationalist point of view. I do not blame this House for not being able to hear them.

I am a Catholic, as I keep repeating. But even my intervention in this debate will be grossly misconstrued by nationalist politicians in Northern Ireland. I recently made a speech in Committee on this Bill and the next morning I was the subject of nasty cartoons in the press. I was classified as a Unionist. I was almost classified as anti-Catholic, because I supported the retention of the name of the RUC.

Perhaps my reason for supporting the retention of the name is a heart-over-mind matter. I am prepared to admit that that may be so. But I have carried the coffins of so many RUC men who were killed by terrorists, both loyalist and so-called IRA. I met their wives and children, and I know how deeply they feel that they are being humiliated and demonised by Sinn Fein/IRA. I know how they feel. I was in their houses 10 minutes after their husbands were killed and sometimes five minutes after their fathers and their brothers were killed. I repeat--and, again, I received a headline in a nationalist newspaper for stating this--that, if it had not been for the RUC, Northern Ireland would have sunk into a pit of anarchy. However much I may be abused for repeating it, I shall do so.

Who is to deny that, without the courage and resolution of the Northern Ireland police force throughout these terrible 30 years, civilisation as we know it in Northern Ireland would have gone by the board? Only last week, a bomb went off outside a police station in Castlewellan. Two RUC men were grievously injured; one lost a leg and is in danger of losing the other. At the time, everyone jumped to the conclusion that it must be the work of the Real IRA, a dissident republican group. But the police were able to issue a statement that the type of device used in the bomb was from the loyalist community. So loyalist dissidents, representatives of loyalist murderers, are now intent on killing the RUC.

Seamus Mallon, who is a former colleague of mine, has said that if the SDLP does not get its way in the Bill, he will not call upon Catholics to join the new police service. I can tell Seamus Mallon--who is no fool--that whatever he may say, it will not determine one way or another whether Catholics will join the RUC. Sinn Fein/IRA control many areas of West Belfast, parts of Crossmaglen and many other areas of Northern Ireland; and the loyalists are in control of their areas in the Shankill Road in West Belfast. They are the people who will determine who will join the new police service. It will not be determined by any siren call by constitutional nationalists.

All the recommendations in the Bill could easily have passed a Committee stage in this House in half an hour. The RUC itself recommended many of them. No one is objecting to the reform of the RUC. It has been in existence since 1920. I think I have illustrated in this House how it came to be demonised by so-called republicans. But its name has a symbolism.

One Liberal Democrat Member has said that the symbolism of the RUC is offensive to Northern Ireland Catholics. But taking away that symbol will be offensive to Protestants--by removing the alienation of one community, we alienate the other. What does it mean to take away the name of the RUC? There will be many widows, sons, daughters, fathers and mothers who will be grievously offended if the name is taken away.

Again, when I spoke in Committee, letters were sent to nationalist newspapers saying: "Does he forget that the RUC hit him over the head with a baton when he was leading a civil rights march on 5th October 1968?". I do not forget that at all. O thought it very wrong of the RUC to attack me and others when I was engaged in demanding civil rights for everyone in Northern Ireland, Catholics and Protestants. But it is 30 years since that happened. Many changes have taken place in the RUC over that period.

I believe that the RUC as presently constructed, together with these reforms when they are implemented, will turn out to be a totally different force from what it was under unionist domination over many years. On Monday of this week, a Catholic ombudswoman opened up her office in Northern Ireland for the purpose of looking into complaints against the RUC. I welcome that development; indeed, the RUC's Chief Constable also welcomes it. The RUC is not against change that will make it a better and a more acceptable force. By rejecting the name, we shall offend many, many people in Northern Ireland. It will not bring support from that section of the community which has been so opposed to it over the past 30 years.