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Northern Ireland

Volume 886: debated on Tuesday 11 February 1975

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

On 14th January I outlined to the House the Government's policy towards Northern Ireland. [Interruption.] I said that the Government were seeking a lasting peace and that a genuine and sustained cessation of violence—

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker, Some of us are anxious to hear what the Secetary of State has to say. Would you please request hon. Members not to make such a clatter as they leave the Chamber?

On 14th January I outlined to the House the Government's policy towards Northern Ireland. I said that the Government were seeking a lasting peace and that a genuine and sustained cessation of violence would create a new situation. If that took place, there would be a progressive reduction in the present commitment of the Army, both in numbers and in the scale of activity, leading to a reduction to peace-time levels and withdrawal to barracks.

I also said that, once I was satisfied that violence had come to a permanent end, I should be prepared to speed up the rate of releases with a view to releasing all detainees. I made it clear that Ministers and officials were ready to explain this policy and hear the views of those in Northern Ireland who had something to contribute.

I re-emphasised this policy in my statement on 5th February and told the House that my officials had had a number of meetings with various organisations, including Provisional Sinn Fein. At those meetings officials had been under instructions to expound the Government's policy and to outline and discuss the arrangements that might be made to ensure that any cease-fire did not break down. There have been further meetings with Provisional Sinn Fein, and the Provisionals have declared a further cease-fire to run from 6 p.m. on Monday 10th February 1975.

The House will wish to have more details of the discussions. On 16th January the Provisional IRA did not prolong its temporary suspension of offensive military action and made a good deal of alleged incidents which, whatever the true facts, it claimed should not have happened. Subsequently, my officials put to Provisional Sinn Fein a scheme designed to make effective arrangements for ensuring that any future cease-fire did not break down.

This has five main elements. First, a number of incident centres, manned by civil servants on a 24-hour basis, will he established in various parts of Northern Ireland. These centres will be linked with my office in Belfast. Second, if developments occur which seem to threaten the cease-fire, these incident centres will act as a point of contact in either direction. Third, issues can be referred to my office in Belfast and clarified there. Fourth, cases referred up to the Northern Ireland Office will be considered, and a reply passed back to the incident centre for onward transmission. Fifth, if out of these exchanges general difficulties about the cease-fire arrangements emerge, then discussions will be arranged between my officials and representatives of legal organisations to clarify them.

There will be full consultation by officials with the security forces on these arrangements which will cover only incidents arising directly out of the ceasefire.

This is what the discussions have been about, and these arrangements will be brought into effect during the next few days.

These practical arrangements can be only the first steps towards a permanent peace. There are many problems yet to overcome in a situation which is far from clear. There is no quick and easy solution and winding down from violence will not happen overnight. It is relatively easy to identify these problems.

In some cases a continued cessation of violence will, as I have indicated before, bring its own results. The presence of the Army will become progressively less obtrusive. Screening, photographing and identity checks can be brought to an end. It will be easier to move about. I shall not sign interim custody orders.

The position of the security forces remains as I have previously stated it, namely that actions are related to the level of any activity which occurs. If this diminishes, then so, too, will the actions of the security forces. But I must make it clear that anyone involved in acts of violence will be prosecuted in the courts.

I have made clear the basis of Government policy, namely that we are seeking a genuine and sustained cessation of violence. This is not just a question of time but, if people go on below the surface acquiring explosives and arms and preparing for violence at some later date, then no one will expect me to regard the cessation of violence as genuine. It means an end to bombings, murders and kneecappings, to kangeroo courts, to armed robberies and hijackings—to the horrors of which even the last few days have given us fresh examples.

Sectarian murders and protection rackets must be ended, and the House will be aware that this affects the whole community.

The community itself must contribute positively to peace. This is not just a matter for the police; it is something in which the whole community must be involved. Policing and community peacekeeping is in everyone's interest.

There are other very difficult problems which I should put to the House because they will have to be tackled. How is permanent peace to be secured? How is respect for the law to be restored? What is to happen to the Emergency Provisions Act and to proscribed organisations? How is the threat of murder and assassination to be brought to an end and people protected? How are the communities to live in peace together? How are jobs to be found so that people can live with their families at home and enjoy life without fear? These are not but they all require examination, thought and action.

The Government will do all they can to help solve them, but it would be an illusion even to think they will disappear overnight. Patience, understanding and good will are needed, and a heavy responsibility here rests on the politicians and would-be politicians, in Northern Ireland to seek out constructive solutions to deal with real problems that have persisted for more than 50 years. I hope now that a process of discussion and debate can replace violence.

My task now is to seek a permanent end to violence, which is the first requirement of any process of discussion in Northern Ireland. This was why I felt it right to take some first steps of a practical kind once I received indications that the Provisionals contemplated reinstating their cease-fire and that they accepted that practical arrangements were needed to ensure that it did not break down. That is what the talks have been about. There has been no question of bartering away the future of the people of Northern Ireland.

As I have said, the situation is far from clear-cut. There is no ready-made or well-defined path ahead. I want to find a way forward, but there are many obstacles and many difficulties. It would be idle to pretend they do not exist. The fact that there is a cease-fire and practical arrangements for monitoring it are the first tentative and welcome steps which I have reported to the House today. With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall continue to report any further developments to the House.

The Opposition are deeply obliged to the Secretary of State for his important statement and for his undertaking to continue to keep us informed. Is he aware that we welcome the beginning of a cease-fire which owes much to the right hon. Gentleman's constancy? Above all, however—and I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will agree with me—it owes most to the courage, skill and patience of the security forces, whose successes are increasingly welcomed and supported in every section of a population revolted by terrorism, from whatever quarter it may come.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the admirable firmness of the Dublin Government needs and deserves to be sustained by our continued vigilance and determination? Having regard to the speculation, will he lose no opportunity to make clear, as I think he has made clear in his statement, that no military or political price has been paid to the Provisionals?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his earlier remarks and in particular for his remarks about the security forces. I have learned in 11 months to rely on them a great deal for advice. They are the people on the ground. I have found it quite remarkable how the soldiers on the streets have an ear for the feelings in the communities. The concept of blimpishness and so on, which is perhaps easily portrayed, does not apply to them.

Our co-operation with the Dublin Government grows all the time. It is not for me to comment on their internal affairs. They are a sovereign independent Government. Co-operation with them takes place.

I can assure the hon. Member that there has been no sell out. It would do no good if there were. One cannot sell out what one cannot control. What matters in Northern Ireland is that there are two communities. I have no wish to sell them out and I will never do so.

Will the Secretary of State give an assurance that the arrangements he has outlined will in no way inhibit the police in enforcing the law, particularly in view of the regrettable outbreaks of assassination which all of us utterly condemn? Since the right hon. Gentleman has put a number of questions to the House, does he intend that there might perhaps be an early debate to discuss the various points he has raised? Can he give an assurance that his plans for the constitutional Convention will in no way be affected by these recent developments?

The hon. Member asked whether the arrangements would affect the enforcement of the law, and the answer is that they will not. The enforcement of the law matters in Northern Ireland.

I am grateful to him, in view of his position in Northern Ireland, for raising the question of sectarian murders. There is no doubt that the killing of a policeman, the killing a couple of days later of two people in the other community nearby, and the killing this morning of a milkman in the same area, constitute a spiralling of sectarian murders, and this only gives strength to paramilitary forces because people feel that they need defence. I am grateful that the hon. Member made that statement because it will reinforce the feeling in the community overall that all people in Northern Ireland are concerned at the sort of violence that is going on in spite of the cease-fire.

The question of a debate is not one for me. Nevertheless, the questions that I raised are real questions. It is not enough for me to sit back now because the cease-fire has emerged. In the developing period of the next month or so real and practical problems will have to be dealt with if the cease-fire is to continue. That must be done if people are not to be afraid to go back to peace.

I know, for example—and I might as well say this—that I am protected by machine guns and goodness knows what else. What about the people who want to go back to peace after having been involved in civil war? They are still afraid. We have to consider the wider issue of how we can get people back to a peacetime attitude. Sectarian murders do not help in that respect, and that is why I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he said.

There has been no change on the Convention, and on the unfolding details of the Convention. I shall announce a date for the election at the appropriate moment.

I offer warm congratulations and thanks to my right hon. Friend and to all those who have assisted him in bringing about the cease-fire. May I urge him to crack down ruthlessly on all sectarian murders and protection rackets? They probably constitute the most immediate short-term threat to the cease-fire. In structuring it and strengthening the monitoring arrangements, will he consult groups on all sides so as to get them into the habit of talking to him in the hope that they will then acquire the habit of talking to each other? Will he say a word about the future of the Emergency Provisions Act?

I agree very much with my hon. Friend about the sectarian murders. I have just arrived from Northern Ireland and I know that there is no doubt that these murders greatly affect the community. The police are doing all they can to deal with this very difficult question. As for the structures to which I referred, I agree that if we can get people used to talking, that is a victory if they have previously been used to using the gun. I shall take any steps I can take in that respect.

The Emergency Provisions Act is due to be renewed in July, but on the technical side we shall have to see what the situation is then. I would never be prepared to leave the security forces without the strength that the Act provides for them. The Gardiner Report is being considered. It recommends changes in the Act, so that all these pieces fit together. We shall look at the Act in context at the time.

Everyone will hope that this latest development represents a new situation in which the people of Northern Ireland will have opted for peace, and in that regard much credit is due to the right hon. Gentleman and to everyone else involved. Will he accept that, even with the best will in the world, it is very difficult, particularly against the pattern of activity in Northern Ireland, for a cease-fire to be automatic overnight. Therefore, the concept of incident centres which help to reduce misunderstanding is an imaginative concept which will assist in that regard. Will they be sited in rural as well as in urban areas? How many does the right hon. Gentleman plan to set up? At the earliest possible moment will he consider a general amnesty for those holding arms so that they may hand them in? This may not be the right moment for such a move, but will he bear that in mind?

Since these matters have been carefully worked out and have presumably obtained the general support of the different communities in Northern Ireland, it would not appear right to probe the right hon. Gentleman at this stage, but may I say that we wish him and the people of Ireland a cease-fire which will prove lasting and effective.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the general terms he expressed at the beginning and at the end of his supplementary question. It matters to the Secretary of State to have a base in the House of Commons because there is no other base from which he can operate. On the practicalities of the centres, we shall site some of these buildings in rural areas. I am trying to be vague because I do not want them to be generally known, since it would be much better that they should not be known. There will be seven or eight in different parts of the Province.

I have considered the question of an amnesty for guns. Such a move would not be right at the moment. There is a great deal of fear, and people hold guns legally because they need them, particularly in rural areas. Those who hold guns illegally sometimes also feel that they need them for protection as well as for other purposes. I shall therefore look at that question.

This is a point to which I have increasingly put my mind. As long as there is a flow of weapons into Ireland as a whole from all parts of the world—and I can speak only for Northern Ireland—as long as money is coming from all parts of the world to provide those guns, as long as explosives move across the border and through the ports, and as long as the detonators and the timing mechanisms are available, there will always be explosions and killings. I am applying my mind to that problem because if I could stop those supplies at source an amnesty would have more relevance.

There is so much in the Secretary of State's statement that it will probably be impossible now for my right hon. Friend to clarify all the questions liable to be posed, and I propose to have a discussion with him later. But he referred to the cease-fire arrangements No one knows exactly what those arrangements are. My right hon. Friend went on to say that, if there appears to be a breakdown, discussions will be arranged between his officials and representatives of legal organisations to clarify the situation. What are these "legal organisations"? What part will they have to play in clarifying such a situation if it arises?

Has my right hon. Friend's attention been drawn to speeches made last week by elected representatives—some of whom sit in this House for Northern Ireland constituencies—which can only be calculated as an incitement to one section of the community to take up arms against the other? Has my right hon. Friend's attention also been called to the trial last week in Northern Ireland of certain members of the Ulster Defence Association, a paramilitary force now seeking to impose its will, and to the remarks made by the judge about that brutal and callous murder case?

It is important that my right hon. Friend should clarify another point. If he has achieved cease-fire arrangements with one illegal organisation, the Provisional IRA, and illegal acts are carried out by paramilitary forces from the loyalist section of the community, what action does he propose to take against those paramilitary forces? Will the Army as at present installed in minority areas be transferred into those areas from which such violence emanates?

Finally, will my right hon. Friend clarify his attitude to the burning issue of internment? When does he propose to set about releasing those who are interned without trial in Northern Ireland, recognising, as the whole community does, that there will never be a hope of a stable political situation until internment is ended?

My general view of detention has been stated today, last week and at the beginning of January. If I am to end detention, I must be sure that there is a genuine cessation of violence. I must be sure of that. Of course, that does not mean that there cannot be releases, but I do not want to play a prisoner trading game by saying that X number of detainees will be let out on condition that something is done in return. It is easier to end the whole lot simply by saying that people are not prepared to bomb and kill. That is the Government's view. It is not a matter of my saying that I will release 50 people next Monday in the hope that, during the weekend, no one is killed—adding that if someone is killed, the releases will be reduced in number next week. For Heaven's sake, let us end the lot. That is the Government's policy.

Perhaps I can give an example with regard to the cease-fire arangements. I think that we might find ourselves with splinter groups. Other organisations are being formed. I want to be sure that if something happens somewhere, my officials can find out whether those who claim that they are operating a cease-fire have been responsible for it. That may sound a little naïve on the surface, but I am convinced that it will help the security forces in the way I have described. It will be the other way round as well—there will be a point of contact in either direction. That is the reason for these practical arrangements.

My hon. Friend asked about speeches. Many speeches are made in political terms everywhere in Northern Ireland, and I do not agree with many of them. My only advice to people—moving, as I do, in both communities—is that what the people of Northern Ireland are looking for is people who are prepared to work for the good of Northern Ireland, and if we can establish that principle it will mean a great deal, from which we can move forward.

Anyone who, by innuendo, supports those who bomb and kill ought to be forced to meet the families whose loved ones have been killed. They would soon learn from that experience. It is all too easy to become a statistic in Northern Ireland, but statistics do not tell of the hatred generated in the course of time—and we are suffering now from decades of hatred arising out of deaths in the past.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his skilful and cautious approach will be widely appreciated throughout Ulster? Will he guard against the possibility of these incident centres developing into something like collaboration with criminals? Can he give an assurance that any information that would be of interest to the police will be passed on to them?

There is no danger, I think, of that collaboration happening to which the right hon. Gentleman referred. In reply to the last point raised by him—yes, of course I will do that. Any information we have will be passed on to the police. This is the sort of thing which needs to be thought out very carefully.

The right hon. Gentleman was active in Northern Ireland politics long before most of us were and some have more honourably concerned themselves before. The right hon. Gentleman knows what makes Northern Ireland tick. I say all this in no sense of pointing an accusing finger. I have taken into account that violence happens on both sides of the community there. It shows a different pattern. There is less bombing on one side. From one community people come more often before the courts because they live in areas where the police operate. We must point the finger at all those who use the gun for political ends. Once we are all doing that unreservedly to both sides, we shall have moved a little forward.

Will my right hon. Friend accept that there will be widespread welcome for his statement and support both to him and to those who have helped him to bring about the situation he has described in his statement? Would not he agree with me, however—and I can only interpret the reports and announcements that I have been able to read—that the present cease-fire would appear to be more firmly based than previous attempts of the kind? If my right hon. Friend does agree that that is the position, can he not now make a more positive statement about the ending of internment, bearing in mind particularly that anyone with a vested interest in maintaining internment can easily do so? Will my right hon. Friend take this aspect into account and try to make a more positive announcement about how long it will go on and when he sees an end to internment being made?

Secondly, I ask my right hon. Friend to use what influence he may have with the Government of the Republic to get them to remove yet another flashpoint which exists and must worry him, as it does all of us who are interested in the Irish situation—that is, the situation at Portlaoise.

Portlaoise prison is not my responsibility. The Irish Government would quite properly resent any interference in the activities of a sovereign Government. Given their history—once they had civil war—I think it better that I should leave the Irish Government to make their own judgments.

The cease-fire is open ended in the sense that a date has not been set to it. That is a very great improvement. I am aware of my responsibilities. That does not mean that I can be absolutely certain about every decision I take every day. I have to take judgments that I know might lead to problems. I am aware very firmly that the one great thing to do in Northern Ireland would be to end detention. I am equally aware that the other thing that goes with it would be to end the killing, the shooting and the bombing. They go together. I have to be assured about that, and whatever I do must not put the life of a single person at risk because, unlike some people in Northern Ireland, I do not believe in martyrs, whether in the community or in the Armed Forces.

There have been reports from Dublin that there is an understanding between the Government and the IRA that IRA personnel will be allowed to continue to carry side arms, and that the police and UDR will not enter certain areas. Can the right hon. Gentleman assure us that there is no truth in those reports?

I have reported to the House the five points I have made and the general questions raised. I have reported to the House all that I must report to the House, because I do not believe that I should hide anything. There have been no signed documents. Nothing has been said about the police. With regard to them, the situation is clear. They have not been in certain areas for a very long time. What I wanted to say about the police I have said in my statement.

There is a law in Northern Ireland about carrying sidearms. Many people carry them. The right hon. Gentleman would be surprised at how many people who come to see me leave their guns at the door of Stormont Castle. Well-nigh everybody does. There are many people who are afraid. The law is the law on that matter, and I shall stick by it.

Has my right hon. Friend had brought to his attention a moving description of Crossmaglen in the Sunday Times colour supplement? Does he draw the conclusion that in present circumstances a low profile by the Army at the very least would be highly desirable? Does my right hon. Friend in any way share the difficulty of some of his hon. Friends that, although we believe that he passionately wants to bring internment to an end, he cannot do so while such action might jeopardise the lives of British soldiers? This is a chicken-and-egg situation of enormous difficulty. The sooner my right hon. Friend gives an indication that the Army presence will be withdrawn, the more likely he is to achieve his other ends.

I do not think that I could have made it clearer than I have since 14th January that the Army presence will be withdrawn progressively, that there will be a return of the emergency battalions to this country in the light of the security situation. It is not quite a chicken-and-egg situation in the sense in which my hon. Friend used the expression. The situation is such that if I am determined to move along a certain line not everything must come from me; there are other people in the community who are involved.

Crossmaglen, where 24 British soldiers have been killed, is very near the Border. It is not the whole of Northern Ireland. I am also concerned with the Protestant areas of East Belfast. That is the nature of Northern Ireland. Crossmaglen has been what it is for a very long time.

If my hon. Friend has visited Northern Ireland recently—I know that he goes frequently—he will have been proud of the way in which the Army has carried out the instructions given by the commanding officers and of the soldiers' rôle in most parts of Northern Ireland over the past three or four weeks. They have been remarkably good. They understand what "low profile" means. There is nothing they want more.

May I refer back to the Secretary of State's reply to my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Craig), because there may have been a slip of the tongue or a misunderstanding. The right hon. Gentleman appeared to say that others had been more honourably engaged in politics in Northern Ireland than my right hon. Friend. I am sure that that was not his intention, not only because it is the custom in this House not to cast aspersions on one another's honour but because of the support which has been given by my right hon. Friend to the right hon. Gentleman's intentions.

I cannot recall the exact words I used, but it is not my job to cast aspersions at anybody, and it certainly was not my intention to do so. I shall look at the words I used and unreservedly withdraw them if I have cast such aspersions.

Will my right hon. Friend consider the effects of a long-term peace and political settlement in Northern Ireland on the Heysham-Belfast ferry service, which is earmarked for closure in the very near future? While the question may bring a smile to the faces of some right hon. and hon. Members there are thousands of people in the United Kingdom, both at Heysham and Belfast, who are watching the situation with great seriousness. If my right hon. Friend will agree to meet a British parliamentary deputation to discuss the matter, we shall be pleased to see him.

I am always pleased to meet my hon. Friend. The responsibility for the service lies at Westminster, not with me but with the Department of the Environment. I have met the trade unions in Northern Ireland and given any help that I could on the matter. If my hon. Friend thinks it necessary, I shall of course be pleased to meet him.