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Northern Ireland

Volume 885: debated on Wednesday 5 February 1975

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With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement.

I have today published a third discussion paper in the series leading up to the Northern Ireland Constitutional Convention which is to consider
"what provision for the Government of Northern Ireland is likely to command the most widespread acceptance throughout the community there".
This third discussion paper covers the sharing of responsibility in government, describes the present structure of government in Northern Ireland including local government and public bodies, identifies some of the main features of possible future patterns of government, and draws attention to how some of these matters have been arranged in other countries which have community problems.

I would remind the House that the Constitutional Convention is entirely a forum for the people of Northern Ireland. It lays on them the task of recommending what form of government is likely to command the most widespread acceptance there. It offers the opportunity for the elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland to consider what system of government by consent will prove workable in a society divided as it is in Northern Ireland. It will be for those representatives to come together for Northern Ireland and put their views to the Government and to this House for decision.

I would add this. All experience goes to show that no system of government will work unless there is widespread and genuine participation in it. I re-emphasise what I have said before; namely, that
"the direction of public affairs can and must be shared by those from all parts of the community who are concerned for the good of all the people in Northern Ireland. What form this sharing and partnership could best take to gain widespread acceptance will be a matter for the Convention to discuss".
I shall be announcing the name of the chairman in due course.

I think the House will also wish to know of developments since my statement on 14th January. The policy I then outlined contained the elements which could bring an end to violence and set in motion a process of discussion. I sought to get away from the daily catalogue of violence and open the door to a new situation in which discussions and political activity could take place in a constructive and peaceful atmosphere. I also sought to bring about progressively a change in the rôle and commitments of the Army and said that if there were a genuine and sustained cessation of violence I would gradually release all detainees.

These remain the Government's aims.

I also said that I would continue to welcome constructive discussion with members of the prorogued Assembly and that my officials have been, and are, available to hear the views of those in Northern Ireland who have something to contribute to the solution of its problems, including those organisations which were deproscribed by me in May last year and which are free to take part in genuine political activity within the law.

Ministers have had meetings with elected representatives both at Westminster and in Northern Ireland to discuss not only matters arising from my statement but also the economic and employment situation in Northern Ireland, which is a matter of major concern to me and should be to all.

My officials have had a number of meetings with various organisations to follow up the statement I made to this House and the publication of the Gardiner Report. There have been a number of meetings with the Provisional Sinn Fein. I wanted to ensure that the Government's policy was clearly understood. Indeed, it would have been quite wrong if I had not arranged for the Government's views to be fully explained and clarified. The future of Northern Ireland is a matter for the people of Northern Ireland. There is no question of bartering their future away. I should make it clear that I have received indications that the Government's policy was not being understood and also that there was a continued interest in trying to bring under control what has now become worrying but sporadic violence.

My officials have been under very clear instructions to explain the Government's policy and to outline and clarify the arrangements that might be made to ensure that any cease-fire did not break down. Explanation has been the key to the meetings. The difficulties in communicating and explaining carefully and fully the Government's policy, not only to the Provisional Sinn Fein but also to other organisations, are very considerable. These difficulties have not been made any the less by rumour and speculation, much of which has been both untrue and unhelpful.

The Government's policy in relation to violence itself is clear. It is that the actions of the security forces will be related to the level of activity that might occur.

The security forces will do their utmost to bring criminals to justice before the courts, and they are having very considerable success. In the past few days, 34 people have been charged with serious offences, five with murder and two with attempted murder. Nearly a quarter of a ton of explosives have been seized and about half the explosive devices placed have been neutralised by Army technical officers. I cannot accept a situation where lives are at risk through failure to deal with a resumption of violence and sectarian murders. I have, therefore, in relation to acts of recent violence, signed seven interim custody orders during the past few days.

The situation in Northern Ireland is both more fluid and much less clear-cut than has been the case for a long time. There is a different attitude in all sections of the community.

People want to see an end to violence, but they want this to be a genuine, and not a temporary, change in the situation. My duty is clear. I must find out whether there can be a genuine and sustained cessation of violence, but equally I must deal with continuing violence from wherever it comes. I shall do both.

The House is grateful to the Secretary of State for his statement and hon. Members will want to read the third discussion paper with great care. It is a useful document, and I do not think it is a harsh criticism to say that it contains nothing very startling.

The House is well aware that the right hon. Gentleman has had a difficult situation to handle in the last six weeks, and, if I may say so, he has handled it very well. Nobody wants to make his position any more difficult. Nevertheless, I am sure he will agree that there is an obvious danger if the meetings with the Sinn Fein go on and on.

In view of what the Secretary of State said about rumour and speculation, I wonder whether there is perhaps too much secrecy about these meetings. Would it perhaps clear the air if further meetings—if there are to be any more meetings—were rather more open?

Secondly, will the right hon. Gentleman say in what respects the Sinn Fein still misunderstands the Government's policy and in what respects further explanation is still necessary? We are all glad to learn of the successes of the security forces in the last few days. Will he say to what extent he believes that the IRA has been able to use this period to regroup and to move arms around? Will he assure us that the security forces have not been inhibited in any way in dealing with any regrouping and movement of arms? Finally, does he know whether any of the recent violence has been centrally organised, and, if so, does he agree that this merely increases the resolve and determination of our people not to be intimidated by violence?

I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's initial remarks. The document which has been published today is in accord with the first two documents. When the Convention meets there will be problems in regard to arrangements and information. Those attending the Convention will find the facts usefully set out in the documents, including factual information about local government, area boards, and the problem of getting the community as a whole involved. The documents deal with important factual matters.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned secrecy. I think it right. I have thought a lot about the matter. It would not be right to say whom my officials have met. There have been meetings with the Provisional Sinn Fein and others on the other side of the community, but they have taken place in Northern Ireland and there has been no question about safe conduct. I think that indicates the nature of the meetings.

Perhaps I should say a word in clarification of what is meant by our policy. It would be easy to talk about a "genuine and sustained cessation of violence". The question is: what does the phrase mean practically? On these matters I am very much led by my security advisers. It is no good my pretending that four months' cease-fire in which arms and detonators are moved about, and in which there is regrouping constitutes any genuine and sustained cessation of violence. The fact that there is no noise looks as though there is not violence, but violence might be being prepared. We all know the kneecapping has been going on in various areas. I want to cover the whole situation because I must not allow myself to be taken in by the phrase "genuine and sustained cessation of violence". There are practical reasons why these matters should be looked at, even though they may be passed on second hand, because just to use the phrase "genuine and sustained cessation of violence" is not enough. I hope that I have clarified that point. I am aware of the dangers. I am gratified by the support that I feel from all parts of the communities. In this situation, as in perhaps more difficult ones from a security point of view, I am also gratified by the firm support that I get from the security authorities.

As the way would appear to be clear for the setting up of the Convention, may I ask the Secretary of State to do his best to arrange for the elections to be held before Easter in view of the obvious difficulties which would arise if they were to be held just prior to the EEC referendum?

Now that the right hon. Gentleman and his officials have taken great care to ensure that the Government's policy is understood by the Provisional Sinn Fein, may we take it that there will be no need for further meetings with the political arm of the IRA, bearing in mind the damaging effects of the rumours and untruths which inevitably surround such talks?

I am very much aware of the situation regarding the date. I shall have to announce the name of the chairman, and I hope to do that soon. I am aware, and will certainly take account, of the EEC referendum. It is most important to get the preparatory work done. It is not a question of merely explaining the policy side. It has been borne in on me by my security advisers that we must be clear about what is meant by "genuine, sustained cessation of violence". I am keen that the meaning of that phrase is explained and passed through, because it is an important anchor for all that I want to do. It must be clear for the benefit of the security forces particularly and people in general what I understand by that. Overall, I should tell the hon. Gentleman, who represents a large part of the community in Northern Ireland, that I understand the views and the fears of the community. Perhaps I understand them more now than ever I did. There are people in all parts of Ireland—I am not referring to the Church men—who like to give an indication that they are in the game, but the large number of people who are satisfying their amour propre in that way are not. Matters reached a pitch in Belfast where it seemed that everybody was negotiating except me. I know who is helping me. Therefore, I know how to evaluate some of the stuff that is given to the Press.

Is the Secretary of State aware that it is the overwhelming wish of the House that the initiative for the Constitutional Convention will be a success? Is he aware that the best service that could be rendered to him, having made a clear statement, would be for the communities in Northern Ireland not to read into it what was not said and to infer from that what was not also said? That has been one of the diseases in Northern Ireland with ministerial statements during the last 15 years. If it is any consolation, as an expatriate and half Irishman. I understood clearly what the right hon. Gentleman said and found myself in full support.

Does the right hon. Gentleman take the view that all sections of the community with which he has come into contact are prepared to support this initiative for elections to lead to a Constitutional Convention? There are those who are opposed to it or would boycott it. Will he at the appropriate time make clear who they are?

What are the conditions which have to be satisfied before the right hon. Gentleman is able to announce the date for the holding of those elections?

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that, in wishing to represent and see represented all shades of opinion, he is merely giving effect, quite properly, to the views taken by Lord Kilbrandon in another context, on which we hope the Government will not have double standards?

On the last matter about Kilbrandon, the whole question of devolved government has emerged over many years going back to the days when the Liberal Party was in power. One factor regarding Northern Ireland which is not present in the two other parts of the United Kingdom is the split society there, culturally at least, which exists in a way that I had never imagined. It is a factor that we must take into account in the method that we are trying to follow for getting the views of the people of Northern Ireland. That was the reason for the Convention which the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) often proposed to one of my predecessors. I remember listening to him saying that it was up to the Government at Westminster at the end of the day to decide.

If Kilbrandon is talking of devolved government, it is not talking of the particular problems of Northern Ireland with its history and culture. Many sections in the community will play a part, and I am sure that the main political parties will play their part. The difficulty is that those who have been used to getting what they want by violence will find it extremely difficult to trust the ballot box. But I am sure that the major political parties will play their part. They can speak for themselves.

Regarding the holding of the elections and the conditions, I do not want to be put in the position that we were in, before, when a date was announced and, for a variety of reasons, it had to be postponed. I will give a month's notice. I want to feel that the people of Northern Ireland can make up their minds calmly about the kind of government that they want in that part of the United Kingdom.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the more he talks, either directly or through officials, to as many interested bodies as possible in Northern Ireland and maintains that a diminution of violence is to be accepted, we should not be in too much of a hurry to bring such talks to an end? Will he tell us whether he and the security forces are able to distinguish between acts of violence which are obviously provisional IRA official acts, if one may call them that, and the acts of those who are loosely termed cowboys? Will he also tell us whether, because he has resorted again to ICOs, he will make an interim statement on that part of the Gardiner Committee's Report which refers to the problems of dealing with people interned in that manner?

The Gardiner Committee's Report is long, detailed and valuable. I am looking at it with the aid of my legal advisers. I will make a report on that aspect as soon as possible. My hon. Friend will recall that the report was clear that there was a place for detention, given the problems of Northern Ireland, and that the ending of it was a political matter. That is what I tried to indicate on 14th January when I made my initial statement.

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's words about the diminution of violence. Of course that is right. But it must not be the ending of violence at any price. I must look at that matter very carefully. It is right that without violence people would not be driven back to their tribal homes—I say that in no derogatory sense—to which many of them belong.

Regarding distinguishing between acts of violence, I choose my words carefully and give the security advice that I have had. There is no doubt that during the cessation of violence—the cease-fire, not a truce—it was clear that it could be turned on and off. There are breakaway groups. It is sometimes not possible for me to be advised clearly on who is responsible for what. Even if we were to obtain a genuine cessation of violence, there might be more splinter groups, because people who have been used to using the gun for four or five years find it difficult to break away from that kind of activity.

Further on the Gardiner Report, does the Secretary of State recognise the urgency of an early announcement on the recommendations of the Gardiner Committee which are highly relevant to the current position? In that context will he consider the possibility of dealing, if necessary separately, with those recommendations which are uncontroversial and could be implemented quickly?

I promise to do that. My legal advisers are looking closely at the legal aspects of those parts which need an amendment of legislation. They need to look at that in detail. I should like to mention one other point underlying the Gardiner recommendations about prison administration and prison accommodation. I am faced, as was the previous administration, with poor prison accommodation for dealing with prisoners in the way in which we understand it should done over here. At the moment, my officials are, in a different context, going through planning appeals and so on with regard to the needs of the new prisons. People feel strongly when a prison is built in their area. As much as I need new prisons so that I can have a proper policy, I cannot move in advance of the prison accommodation.

I welcome this document in so far as it restates Government policy that the evolution of any future political structure in Northern Ireland must enjoy the support of both sections and communities in Northern Ireland.

On the question of negotiations which the Secretary of State has had with the elected representatives in Northern Ireland and with the political parties, can he give us any indication as to what is the attitude of those parties towards power sharing, participation and partnership in any future Government? Has any one of those parties or any number of those parties stated clearly that they will not take part in partnership in government with the minority in Northern Ireland?

From the discussions that the Secretary of State has had with the Sinn Fein, is the Secretary of State now in a position to say whether he has clarified once and for all what is its attitude to this Government? Will there be any further discussions? Does he recognise that the attitude of some of the major political parties in Northern Ireland towards non-acceptance of partnership in government is leading to a continuation of violence and is some sort of justification to the men of violence for carrying on with their campaign?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks about Government policy.

With regard to the views of the elected representatives, my hon. Friend puts me in some difficulty, because I think it is for parties to speak for themselves rather than through me. As I read the feelings in the communities in recent weeks, my strong feeling is that those who will work for the good of a united Ireland, from whatever community they come, will do more for Northern Ireland in the long run than all the feuding and fighting that has gone on over 50 years. It is in that context of Northern Ireland that I say to my hon. Friend that I see the value of power sharing.

I have given my views with regard to the Siam Fein and the practical aspects of what might be at the end of the day a genuine cessation of violence. Those practicalities concern the men of violence, and at second hand I presume that what my officials say gets through. Those are not subjects I talk about with the elected representatives.

While welcoming the Secretary of State's assurance that his decision when to start a general release of detainees must be governed by security advice, may I ask whether he thinks that there might be something to be said for fixing a definite period of time free of terrorism which must elapse before such a happy outcome can begin? After all, when we speak of playing cat and mouse it is very often the terrorist who plays cat and mouse—not the Secretary of State.

With regard to the question of cat-and-mouse bargaining, that is a game which I do not wish to play. That is why I said that everybody must be clear what is meant by "genuine sustained cessation of violence". I would not want to set a date, because we could have a period free of violence for a time when it looked on the surface as if all was well but if we went beneath it we should know that a great deal was going on.

On the question of the detainees and the cat-and-mouse game, in terms of the executive releases the republican candidates are not appearing before the commissioners at the moment. I do not want to be involved in a cat-and-mouse game. I have put forward Government policy as to how we can end it. That does not mean that people will not be released in between for other reasons, on both sides of the community fence, but not in the cat-and-mouse aspect. I have to take humanitarian aspects into account from time to time. However, overall the way to end detention is clear and simple. Let us stop violence in Northern Ireland. Let us stop the killing. There was the instance last week of the killing of the ATC boy of 16, whose father spoke so bravely after the death of his son and said he did not feel angry against anybody in the community. I could not have said that. Then there was the murder of the young boy down in Forkhill, who was blown up. In the face of that, for God's sake let us stop it, and then we can end detention. The killing of the RUC sergeant last week is an equally bad example.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that success in Northern Ireland is not measurable in any way in terms of the number of people gaoled or interned? Does he agree further that those people who see the military defeat of the IRA as being the final solution to the problem of Northern Ireland might just as well attempt to plough the ocean? Will he agree finally that the unbending of the majority community towards the minority in a democratic manner is the ultimate solution, and the only solution? To the extent that the Ulster Unionist Members help us towards that, they will thereby solve not only the problems of the minority in Northern Ireland but precisely their own problems as well.

I do not see the job that I do in any numerical way, not only with regard to detainees. It is not measurable. That is why I now say that I have a feeling that things are different, but I could not quantify it. I am looking not for victory but for peace. But I am not looking for a phoney peace. I am looking for a genuine, sustained cessation of violence. That is what I have to measure, not numerically. I have to measure what can be done to see that it is achieved. The best way for the communities in Northern Ireland to work together is to share power for the good of Northern Ireland. I believe that can be done after five years of what, in effect, is war.

Is the Minister aware that the Provisional Irish Republican Army has publicly announced that it was responsible for the dastardly shooting of the police sergeant and also for the serious wounding of another police constable? Will he confirm today that those policemen were coming from protection duty at the home of a prominent member of the SDLP? Will he also confirm that the SDLP is the one political party in Northern Ireland with elected representatives which does not support the police, and which at its conference refused a call to support the police? Will he tell us whether he was the member of the Government who authorised the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) to say at that conference that the Government had made up their mind and would announce the release of 100 detainees?

With regard to the killing of the policeman, whoever was responsible —whether directly, or authorised, or otherwise—it was a dastardly deed. The security forces do not need my permission—they know they have it—to seek out whoever did it and bring them to justice. That is true of any other killing in Northern Ireland, all of which—to use the words we have used so many times before—sows the seeds of hatred in the future.

With regard to support for the police, my responsibility is to the Government. I know of the changes that have taken place. I know that the only way to reduce the rôle of the Army is for the police to play a larger rôle. The police in Northern Ireland have my firm support. I speak for the Government. I cannot speak for anybody else.

The hon. Gentleman asked me whether those men were on official duty. They had called recently at the home of a member of the SDLP. I know, in his individual case, how sad he feels about it, and I know of the support which he gives to the police, which is different from the political aspects about which I think the hon. Gentleman is talking.