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Northern Ireland

Volume 929: debated on Thursday 7 April 1977

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Royal Ulster Constabulary


asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whether he will clarify the rôle of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, in view of the recent statement by the Police Federation in Northern Ireland.

It remains the rôle of the RUC to maintain law and order and, in furtherance of this, to prevent and detect crime and to prosecute criminals through the courts. In the present security situation much of the work of the force is directed against the terrorists. I am pleased to report to the House that the RUC has achieved impressive results in its fight against crime, and in particular the terrorist.

Will the Minister say with rather more precision exactly what were the points on which the Police Federation differed from the Secretary of State? Will he say whether those differences have since been resolved? Secondly, will the Minister agree that, whatever labels or descriptions may be applied to the Royal Ulster Constabulary, it is absolutely essential that it should be so equipped to enable it to defeat terrorism in all its forms?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that if any equipment is required the request is made by the Chief Constable, who has the full support of the police authority and the Government. As for differences of opinion that might have existed before the meeting between my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, representatives of the Police Federation and myself on 16th March, I believe that members of the federation were under wrong impressions, but those wrong impressions were removed. My right hon. Friend gave an assurance to the federation representatives that the police would not be required to accept a para-military rôle, and that the Army would always be there when required to support them in their tasks and endeavours on behalf of the people of the Province.

Is the Minister aware that the Conservative Party supports the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux) in asking for further assurances on this question? The interrogation of suspects obviously must not go beyond what is permissible in a civilised society, but will the Minister speak up for the overwhelming majority of the RUC against the sweeping allegations made against it recently, and will he speed up the completion of police inquiries into accusations of brutality made against the RUC on the BBC "Tonight" programme on 2nd March?

My right hon. Friend and I will do all that we possibly can to assist police to speed up their inquiries and the investigations necessary under the law. I assure the hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friend and I share with others in the House a respect for the work being done by the RUC. Provided that members of the RUC act within the law, they have our utmost support.

Now that the police have been civilianised, is it not an insult to Ulster people, who have suffered eight years of terrorism, for them to find that the Government's new secret weapon against the terrorists is the use of mobile civilian searchers? These searches could be carried out by the police and the Army, and if there are not enough members of those forces to do so, their numbers should be increased. The Army is not very evident on the ground in Northern Ireland.

The hon. Gentleman is under a misapprehension. The civilian search unit has been in operation since 1972, and one of its tasks has been to assist the police. I am sorry if the hon. Gentleman does not know anything about it. I should have thought that as a representative of the people he would know something about it. Perhaps in that regard those whom he represents should feel apprehension that he is not aware of these things. The civilian search unit is there to assist in operational requirements and it is called upon by the police and the Army. I should have thought that, in view of the requests that the hon. Gentleman has been making recently, the activities of the unit would please, not displease him.

Since my hon. Friend has been asked by the Opposition spokesman to speak up for the overwhelming majority of the RUC concerning allegations of brutality and interrogation procedures, will he take that as an admission that there is a minority in the RUC which is engaging in illegal tactics? Will he further indicate that where allegations of brutality are levelled at the RUC these should be treated as a matter of urgency, and that weeks and months should not be allowed to drag by? In a situation such as this it is imperative that a decision one way or the other should be arrived at in the shortest possible time to ease the minds of the general public.

I am not responsible for the questions that are put to me. If I answer them it should not be taken to mean that I share the opinions of those who put the questions. I believe that until inquiries are completed there should be no admission or denial.

Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that the reputation and integrity of the RUC is second to none?

I have said that many times, but I have pleasure in saying it once more. What is happening in the RUC is a credit to everyone in the force, but that is not to deny that from time to time situations arise which cause anxiety and concern.

In spite of what the Minister of State has said, for the police to be fully effective they must be more representative of the Northern Ireland community. What help is the hon. Gentleman getting from political parties, the Churches and other bodies in Northern Ireland to ensure that more Roman Catholics are recruited into the RUC?

If we could get more of the minority population to join the RUC that would be an achievement which would create a greater degree of confidence in the population as a whole. We are doing all we can to encourage that, but we have to be assisted by the population and by those whom we urge to apply to join the force. The hon. Gentleman asked me about those who are prominent in political or business life. Some of the statements that have been made have caused anxiety in the Police Federation because some of the suggestions have been outrageous.



asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what changes he has made in the Government's strategy for the defeat of terrorism.

The Government's strategy for the defeat of terrorism rests on the vigorous implementation of present policy. No changes are therefore necessary.

The essentials of this policy are to pursue the terrorists through the courts; to encourage the development, effectiveness and acceptance of the police so that they can still more effectively detect, arrest and charge those responsible for terrorist crimes; to foster police/Army co-operation, and to build up the rôle and full time strength of the UDR; and to maintain the Army in sufficient strength to meet the demands of the security situation.

While all must be done under the law, is it not extraordinary that the Secretary of State should say that changes to bring the masters of murder to justice are unnecessary? Is the right hon. Gentleman content with the admittedly impressive yet low level of success referred to by the Under-Secretary of State in replying to the previous Question? After so many years, can no light be shown at the end of this tunnel of terror? Has the Secretary of State studied the proposal by my hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon (Mr. Neave) for a specially trained and regularly constituted anti-terrorist formation?

The hon. Gentleman was asking about the strategy for the defeat of terrorism. I think that the strategy is working and that it is unnecessary to change it. As for the introduction of a special anti-terrorist squad, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman realises that there are 14,000 British troops in the Province. There are 7,500 members of the UDR, the RUC and the RUC Reserve. In addition, the SAS is operating throughout the Province and is helping with intelligence, and helping the RUC in its fight against crime. That gives a total of 31,000, a ratio of one law and order agent for every 50 of the population.

Has the right hon. Gentleman seen the proposal of the Alliance Party that the promotion of terrorism should be made an offence? Will the Secretary of State comment on that?

I answered that point the last time we had Northern Ireland Questions on the Floor of the House. It is unnecessary to have an offence of terrorism. Every act of handling bombs or weapons is in itself an act of terrorism in Northern Ireland. If there were a charge of terrorism it would hold a political connotation, and we want to get away from that.



asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what proposals he has for expediting the despatch of minor matters of administration raised by hon. Members with the Department of the Environment, Northern Ireland and other Departments.

Northern Ireland Office Ministers are always concerned that hon. Members should receive a reliable and efficient service on all matters, including minor matters of administration, raised by them with Northern Ireland Departments. To this end my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has instructed Departments that where a Member of Parliament approaches a local office of a Department about an individual constituency case, the head of that office or a senior official may reply, provided the inquiry does not raise any issue of policy, in which case a ministerial reply will be given.

Bearing in mind the excellent public representative's handbook issued by the Housing Executive, will the Government consider, in order to facilitate the full effect of the Secretary of State's arrangements, issuing to Members of Parliament and possibly to others a comparable document in respect of the other services where consultation and dealings at lower administrative levels are desirable?

I am aware of the right hon. Gentleman's correspondence with the Housing Executive and the troubles that he has had with it. His suggestion sounds a good one, and we shall certainly consider it.

When a complaint is made by an hon. Member about public works that are carried out in Northern Ireland, is the investigation of such a complaint dealt with by the official who is responsible for the works in the first place?

Obviously if a complaint is made against a particular official, I, as the Minister concerned with the Department of the Environment, would not like to think that that official was dealing with the complaint. I should always try to ensure that another official carried out the investigation.

Security Forces


asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what is his policy regarding the conclusion of the Defence and External Affairs Sub-Committee contained in the Second Report from the Expenditure Committee to the effect that there is an urgent need, in the interests of the Army, to get force levels in Northern Ireland down, and what is being done in particular to ensure that the civil authority has sufficient resources of its own to diminish and ultimately relieve its dependence on aid from the Army without weakening the forces to combat terrorism and subversion.

Soldiers will support the civil power in Northern Ireland as long as they are needed to maintain the security of the Province. The maintenance of law and order is a police responsibility and the aim is that the RUC will progressively take over full responsibility for it. They will be recruited, trained and equipped to enable them to do so, but they will not be given tasks for which they are not fitted as a civil force. While the level of violence requires it, the Army will remain as a buttress for the police, supported as necessary by the UDR.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the prime responsibility for combating terrorism and subversion lies with the police force of the Province? That being so, will he say what special training and equipment is being made available to the RUC?

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary indicated earlier that we do not wish to see the RUC develop as a para-military force, but in the present security situation it is essential that the RUC has defensive weaponry. It is being equipped with the M1 carbine. The first batch of these weapons has already arrived and tests have been carried out. Secondly, I have agreed that it should have mobile equipment up to 1,178 vehicles. Thirdly, it is to receive another 40 Land Rovers by the end of April and they will have protection around them, which will be fitted by the end of May.

Will my right hon. Friend be replying to this part of the Expenditure Committee's Report, and will he recognise that while we all believe the Army to be doing an extremely good job in Northern Ireland, the only solution to the problem there will be a political solution? Can he say what new initiatives are being taken in this regard?

I am not certain yet whether I shall be answering the Expenditure Sub-Committee myself, but no doubt the usual channels between the Secretary of State for Defence and myself will be operating to see how we can give a full and adequate reply. On the political side, perhaps my hon. Friend has not been fully conversant with the movements of recent times, but I decided three weeks ago to bring the major political parties together at a meeting with me at Stormont. I am sorry to say that there was not at that time a willingness among the political leaders to meet. There is no possible chance yet of them being prepared to come back from intransigent postures. We shall have to wait until after the local elections to see whether a greater willingness exists then.

Even if such a conference or discussion were arranged, and even if absolutely unanimous agreement were reached, what conceivable effect could that have on the level of terrorism being practised by the Provisional IRA?

It would be a signal to the terrorists in Northern Ireland—the Provisional IRA—that part of their cause had evaporated, and that the political parties themselves, across the religious divide, were prepared to work together. That would help the atmosphere, but it would not solve the terrorist problem.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the objective of the terrorists can truly be removed only if this House grants to Northern Ireland the constitutional arrangements that obtain in this part of the United Kingdom, namely, the reorganisation of local government and increased representation in this House?

On the last point, the hon. Gentleman knows that the Lord President of the Council gave an assurance that a Speaker's Conference could examine the possibility of increased representation from Northern Ireland in this House.

As regards the reorganisation of local government, the political parties in Northern Ireland are divided on what they really want. The Government's aim is devolved executive government. Some of the parties would like two or three councils to fill the yawning gap between local councils and Westminster representation. Therefore, there is no agreement coming from the parties themselves.

Security Situation


asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the current security situation in Northern Ireland.


asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whether he will make a further statement about the security situation.

Since the beginning of the year 43 people have lost their lives and 347 people have been injured as a result of violence in Northern Ireland. The main features of this violence have been the attacks by the Provisional IRA against members of the security forces, some murder attempts on prominent members of the community and a much reduced number of sectarian assassinations. Appalling and tragic though this violence is, the toll of death and injury is significantly lower than during the corresponding period in previous years. In the first 74 weeks of 1976,99 people were killed and 698 were injured; in the same period in 1975—during the Provisionals' ceasefire—55 people were killed and 527 were injured; and in 1974 62 people were killed and 677 were injured. Therefore, there is a noticeable decline in deaths and injuries.

In the past three months there has been sustained activity by the security forces in the campaign against terrorism, including the call-out of five companies of the Ulster Defence Regiment. This activity has resulted in the capture of 170 firearms and 3,363 1b of explosive. In the same period 297 people have been charged with serious offences, including 18 with murder, 42 with attempted murder, 81 with firearms offences and 34 with explosives offences.

I welcome the slight improvement in the ghastly total figures that the Secretary of State has given us. Is he aware that there is growing resentment among the junior level of command in the regular security forces at the increasing restrictions—as they see them—that have been placed on them in trying to carry out the vital job of rooting out terrorism? They are getting frustrated because the permission required before they can follow up information and make searches in many cases negates their skill in getting the information quickly at first hand. Will the Secretary of State assure everyone that there will be no unnecessary restrictions on the activities of the security forces, in whatever posture the politicians may want them to operate?

I am sorry to hear that. There are no political restraints on members of the security forces. In view of what the hon. Gentleman said and his interest in defence and security matters in Northern Ireland, I shall certainly draw that matter to the attention of the GOC.

I congratulate the security forces on their good work this year. Will the Secretary of State tell us what success there has been in the campaign against the "Goldfingers" of terrorism—the men who make a fat living out of protection rackets and illegal drinking clubs?

I cannot give a progress report on that aspect of the matter, because it does not arise from the original Question. The Chief Constable is fully aware of the black taxi rackets, gaming clubs, illegal drinking clubs, and so on. He is doing his utmost, with the deployment of his resources, gradually to tighten a grip on that situation.

While acknowledging the successes of the security forces, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman to pay attention to the legal position of the Provisional Sinn Fein and make a statement on this matter after the recess? Did he notice that its national organiser was sentenced at the Old Bailey yesterday under the Prevention of Terrorism Act for soliciting guns and radios for terrorism in Northern Ireland? Will he therefore consult the Home Secretary about the alleged collection of funds in London for various purposes and the possible use of that organisation in Northern Ireland as a political front for the IRA?

Anyone who watches the Irish situation, north and south, and occasionally in Great Britain, has no doubt that there is a relationship between the PSF and the Provisional IRA. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the PSF was de-proscribed in 1974 by my predecessor. Indeed, the last Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in the Conservative Administration indicated in a speech at Cambridge in February 1974 that that was desirable. It was desirable because, if the Provisional IRA wanted to pursue the proper electoral processes, the PSF, still being legal, would be the outlet for it to do so.

The other point raised by the hon. Gentleman concerned talks with the Home Secretary.

Order. If the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) does not mind, I shall call him later. Mr. Neave.

Will the Secretary of State particularly investigate the circumstances of the case at the Old Bailey yesterday, where the national organiser of the Provisional Sinn Fein was sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment under the Prevention of Terrorism Act? Is he satisfied that the provisions of that Act are working with regard to Provisional Sinn Fein?

Yes. This is spilling over to the Home Secretary's responsibilities. However, I shall do what the hon. Gentleman suggests and consult the Home Secretary to see what can be done about it.

Did my right hon. Friend detect the wave of absolute revulsion that swept throughout Northern Ireland this week because of the Provisional IRA's admission that it was responsible for blowing up two cafes in the centre of Belfast, in which many innocent children were badly wounded and maimed? Does he accept that everyone agrees with the Government's strategy of bringing terrorists before the courts, but that it must be seen that the courts act in a fair and impartial way? Is he aware that last week the local Press in Northern Ireland reported four sentences that were handed out to terrorists for the offence of murder? One was sentenced to 30 years' imprisonment, another to 14 years' imprisonment and the other two to 10 years' imprisonment. On the face of it, that could give rise to some question whether all those convicted of murder should be given the same sentences, whether 30, 15 or 10 years.

I hope that my hon. Friend will not start to undermine the confidence of the people of Northern Ireland in the courts of justice. They have a difficult task to perform. They are terribly overworked and have a difficult job to do in present circumstances. I think that, alongside the RUC, they have managed to maintain the respect and esteem of the people of Northern Ireland. It may be that occasionally sentences are imposed that do not look satisfactory to some people, particularly the minority community.

However, I should like to add to what I said earlier, in view of the first point made by my hon. Friend. There has certainly been a considerable protest by Northern Ireland people against the cowardly and callous attacks on what might be termed soft targets in the past few weeks. Credit is due to some members of the minority community—Austin Curry, John Hume and Patrick O'Hanlon, a founder member of the SDLP—who, backed by Mr. Cosgrave and Senator Kennedy, have, for the first time, courageously spoken against the Provisional IRA. There is now a stronger wave of revulsion by the minority community, which is more outspoken than ever before, against the Provisional IRA's activities.

Does the Secretary o: State agree that one reason for the reduced figures has been the improved situation in South Armagh? Will he continue to bear in mind the strategic importance of that part of my constituency and resist any attempt to divert resources to other parts of Northern Ireland?

That is a valid point, and it would not be for me to direct the GOC or the police to lower their levels of security there. It is essential that they should be maintained.

Since terrorism is still rampant in Northern Ireland, surely there is an urgent need for the creation of an anti-terrorist force such as exists in other Common Market countries, where there are fewer terrorists and less death and destruction? When will the Government realise that Northern Ireland will not be treated as the Khyber Pass and the North-West frontier of the 1970s, providing reminiscences for Ministers and for military mess dinners?

The hon. Gentleman would appear not to have listened to what I said earlier, when I explained to the House that there are already 31,000 members of the security forces in Northern Ireland—one to every 50 of the community. That is a considerable proportion.

Secondly, the SAS is operating inside Northern Ireland Province-wide. It is aiding and abetting the police, feeding the police with intelligence and making sure that the RUC, with its regional crime squads, is successful in its arrests of the terrorists.

I welcome the Secretary of State's asurances that the Army will remain in support of the civil power for as long as is necessary in Northern Ireland, but is it not the case that it is not a question of numbers of troops so much as of suitable forces with the right skills, organisation and equipment? Will the Secretary of State not be quite so negative concerning the question put by the hon. Member for Down, North (Mr. Kilfedder), and the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon (Mr. Neave) for a special antiterrorist force regularly constituted? Will the Secretary of State not rush at this, but give it some thought during the recess?

I do not think that it is necessary to change the strategy. I have tried to explain during the course of Question Time that the strategy is working. The rate of attrition is improving. I do not, therefore, see any need for any other special anti-terrorist squad in Northern Ireland.

Housing Executive


asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he remains satisfied with the amount of finance being made available to the Housing Executive.

Yes, Sir. The Northern Ireland Housing Executive has not been hindered in its work by a lack of finance.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the many hundreds of complaints that all of us who represent Northern Ireland receive about dampness in the houses of tenants of the Housing Executive, and that they are usually fobbed off with the excuse of condensation? Will the Housing Executive do something constructive about this and try finally to get a maintenance section that actually carries out maintenance functions?

There is no real relationship between that question and the Question on the Order Paper. The hon. Member will know that we have had an investigation carried out concerning the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, and I hope that some of the problems in the maintenance area to which the hon. Member referred can be resolved in some form of reorganisation in the future.

Is the Minister satisfied that taxpayers' money is no longer leaking through parts of the Housing Executive into the pockets of terrorist leaders?

Terrorist Prisoners (Release)


asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland how many persons convicted of terrorist offences have been released before the expiration of the period of the sentence apart from ordinary remission for good behaviour; and how many will be released during the remainder of the year under the same scheme.

While prison records do not separately identify persons convicted of terrorist offences, all special category prisoners have been convicted of offences connected with the civil disturbances. Since June 1972, 128 such prisoners have been released under the Royal Prerogative of Mercy, which is exercised, for example, when there are exceptional compassionate or medical circumstances, or when releases would otherwise occur over the Christmas period. It is therefore impossible to forecast how many such releases there may be in future.

Is the Minister aware that the security forces, or at least some of them, are concerned about the release of terrorists before the expiration of their sentences, and that they should be allowed only the ordinary remission and not the increased period put in by his right hon. Friend's predecessor? Will he look into this? It is very worrying that all these people, perhaps hundreds, are coming back into the streets and engaging in terrorist offences.

I said that since June 1972 there have been 128 such prisoners. In most of these cases of release under the exercise of the Royal Prerogative of Mercy the period was about two weeks, or even less, over the Christmas period. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has asked the right question, and whether he is referring to this scheme or the other scheme that we have in Northern Ireland in place of the parole system.

Are the Government aware that as soon as resources and new accommodation make it possible to wind down, sooner than is anticipated at present, the mistaken special category status, that will have the full support of my hon. Friends and myself?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman and all his colleagues, and also my hon. Friends, for the support that we have had concerning the ending of the special category status. It has certainly not been easy. We have been able to do it only when, logistically, it has been possible—that is, when cells have become available.

In 1968 we were running the penal system only with Crumlin Road, where we had about 600 prisoners at the most. At this moment we have a prison population of 2,700. We had only 300 prison officers in 1968. Now we have well over 2,000. This is the extent of what has happened.

Will my hon. Friend indicate the total number of persons convicted of terrorist offences who have not been given special category status, and say how many have conformed in Long Kesh, how many are not conforming, and the amount of remission that has been lost by those not conforming to the new prison regulations? How long has it been since they have received visitors from outside?

Those who are not conforming will not receive visitors. Since the ending of special category status, 300 people have been convicted through the courts. Of this number, as of yesterday, 101 were not conforming. We have, therefore, nearly 200 who are conforming. The loss of remission of those people not conforming now totals over 16 years.

Finaghy Community Centre


asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will give the commencement date for the renovation of Finaghy Community Centre; and what social amenities are planned for the Mount and Willowfield wards in South Belfast.

The decision as to the renovation of the Finaghy Community Centre is the direct responsibility of the Housing Executive, which has carried out a survey on the need for repairs. As for the Mount and Willowfield wards of Belfast, Belfast City Council has plans to provide a community centre in the Woodstock Road area.

I thank the Under-Secretary for that reply, but may I emphasise that the Finaghy Community Centre has been promised renovation for well over 18 months now, and that a very large part of my constituency depends on this building? The Mount and Willow-field wards, on the east side of my constituency, have very few rent or rate debtors, and expect the kind of facilities that obtain in other parts of the city.

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the decision to hand over community centres in the ownership of the Housing Executive was taken last October, subject to the city authority and, indeed, other authorities agreeing on the state of repair. There is some dispute at the moment about the state of repair of the Finaghy Community Centre. We hope that it can be resolved, in which case it will be handed over to the city authority and be properly run from that point of time.

Will the Minister say whether his Department has reached any conclusion on the submission made to it by the Lisburn Borough Council concerning land for recreational purposes?

I had not expected that question, but as it has been put I shall look into it and send the hon. Member a reply.