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Northern Ireland (Remand Procedure)

Volume 957: debated on Tuesday 7 November 1978

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

The House will know of the difficulties which have recently been affecting the Northern Ireland prison service. In particular, in pursuit of a claim for an increase in their emergency allowance from £3 per day to £5 per day, prison officers in the Province have been refusing to accept prisoners into prison following their appearances in court for first or subsequent remand hearings.

As a result, it has proved necessary to open a new temporary prison at Magilligan to be known as Her Majesty's Prison, Foyle, under a specially appointed governor, who has sought the assistance of members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. The Army, in pursuance of its normal role, is responsible for the security of the prison's perimeter. It may subsequently be necessary to open further establishments of this kind, but there is a limit to the amount of resources which the police and Army can devote to this task.

A large number of prisoners are awaiting trial in Northern Ireland on the most serious charges, and it is vital that those whom the courts have directed should be held in secure custody should be so held.

We therefore decided, when Foyle prison came into use, to reinforce this measure by providing by Order in Council that remand hearings may be undertaken in a prisoner's absence, thus reducing the flow to the Foyle prison. I would emphasise, however, that we have also provided that the courts may at any time direct that a prisoner be brought before them. The Order in Council will require an affirmative resolution of both Houses within 40 sitting days to remain in force.

I regret the necessity for this action, and I hope that the prison officers in Northern Ireland will realise the effect that their protest action is having upon the rule of law in the Province. Too many members of the security forces are already being diverted from their primary task—the protection of the community against terrorism. I look to the prison officers to recognise their responsibilities, to co-operate with the inquiry which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced last week and to return to normal duty quickly. As soon as they return to normal duty, I shall be able to rescind the order made yesterday.

In view of the Secretary of State's great success in bringing prisoners before the courts in the normal way, certainly in the last year or so, may I tell the right hon. Gentleman that we share his regret at the necessity for this departure from remand procedures? We welcome his statement that it will be temporary, which he has made clear. Is he aware that we entirely agree when he says that prisoners must be kept in secure custody in Northern Ireland and that, since in this emergency he has no alternative, we shall give him our full support when the matter is further considered? May I ask what steps are being taken to bring to an end the situation in the prison service that has made the order necessary?

I do not want to go too far on the latter point raised by the hon. Gentleman, because talks have been in progress this morning and there will be further talks during this afternoon involving the Northern Ireland prison officers and prison officers from other parts of Great Britain.

The hon. Gentleman is right. This is a temporary order. The resident magistrates and the courts can still direct an appearance if they deem it necessary. But I could not allow the situation to develop where the prison officers were refusing the return of remand prisoners into gaols, and I could not allow prisoners to go free on the streets. We are talking of people who have committed murder and conspired to commit murder and terrorist offences.

Therefore, I had to take urgent action to establish Foyle prison and divert prisoners there. I hope that it will not be for long.

Is the Secretary of State aware that we support the Government in taking this emergency action, which was made inevitable by the industrial dispute, which we trust will be of short duration? Will he take the opportunity to correct the impression created by his press statement yesterday that the powers would be used for a period of three months even if the dispute were settled in the interval? Finally, as the order has been made under the emergency procedure, will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that it is brought before the House well in advance of the expiry of the period of 40 days so that a debate can take place on the matter?

I shall certainly give consideration to bringing the order before the House as quickly as possible, for affirmation by the other place and the House of Commons. I give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that I shall be only too pleased and ready to act. If the prison officers stop their action, I shall want to bring in an order immediately to rescind the present order.

Is the Secretary of State aware of the seething anger that is now being expressed among members of the legal profession in Northern Ireland? Is he further aware that, in attempting to end one strike, he is liable to bring about a strike of members of the legal profession, who say that they will not go into court unless their client is physically available there?

Does not the Secretary of State realise that already in Northern Ireland we have courts without juries? Now we are to have courts without prisoners. That leads to the complete negation of the judicial system as we know it in the rest of the United Kingdom. May I ask my right hon. Friend not to attempt, as he has tried to do this afternoon, to convict those prisoners who are on remand? They have not as yet been found guilty. Will he give an undertaking to the House that no further erosion of the judicial system will be allowed to take place and that an emergency debate in this House will be initiated by himself, so that all hon. Members will have an opportunity to express themselves on the ramifications of the order?

I am obliged to my hon. Friend for the views he has expressed. I have just left the Province, and I do not disagree with his view that there is seething anger there. I am aware that those defence counsel who regularly defend the Provisional IRA terrorists are seething with anger.

That I understand, because they are the people whom they want to be able to represent in the courts. It is quite correct to say that there is seething anger from a section of the legal profession.

However, my hon. Friend must be aware that on the question of human rights—

—I feel that it is a distasteful measure. I have explained to the House that it is a temporary order. The resident magistrates and the courts can still direct an appearance, and the prisoners within the courts can still be legally represented.

On the other side of the coin, I want to advise my hon. Friend and the House that the rights of the public have to be safeguarded too. I could not condone the release of suspected terrorists from gaol because the prison officers will not receive them. Indeed, one of the men on remand at the moment is accused of having responsibility for the La Mon House massacre. What would be the anger of the Province if I decided to release people of that kind? I have to accept the harsh realities in Northern Ireland and face the facts. Therefore, I have prepared a temporary gaol into which these remand prisoners can go.

Although one regrets any incursions into the principle of habeas corpus, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that my hon. Friends and I would support him in that this must be balanced against the overriding need to give neither hope nor comfort to men of violence simply because there is an industrial dispute with the prison authority? Will the Secretary of State assure the House that he will keep a personal brief on all instances in which prisoners are sentenced in absentia or dealt with by the courts as such?

I am grateful and obliged to the hon. Gentleman for what he has said. I shall watch, personally and closely, the cases of those who are being remanded in absentia. I am concerned that a number of remand prisoners are to go into temporary gaols. The conditions will not be the same as in the gaols they have left. I am worried about the drain on the RUC, which will now be asked to cover the prison itself. I am worried about the drain on the Army, which will now have to be responsible for the safety of the perimeter fences.. If the situation continues, I shall have to consider another gaol in addition to Foyle. These are serious matters and I am very concerned about them. I assure the House that I shall be watching the situation day by day.

Does my right hon. Friend understand that it is not only defence lawyers of the IRA who are concerned about this matter, but all lawyers?

It goes right to the heart of the rule of law and the doctrine of habeas corpus. Will my right hon. Friend, therefore, clarify his statement by telling us whether the temporary prisons are adequate to cope with the flow of prisoners who will come to the courts for remand? Secondly, will he consider the importance of sending representatives of the judiciary to the prisons where these prisoners have been remanded in their absence? Does he understand that the essence of access to the courts is to enable the independent judiciary to see the physical condition of the prisoners who come before them?

I shall certainly give consideration to the last point made by my hon. Friend. On the first point, the setting up of this temporary prison—I hope that it will be temporary—means that prison rules have to be laid down. Those rules will be laid before the House today in typescript. I have had to establish a new governor for the prison, and constables and others have to go in to control it. In Foyle, normal and legal visits are already taking place. Arrangements are being made for a board of visitors. I hope that we shall be able to give prisoners in the temporary gaol as good a service as in the permanent gaol that they have left.

Is the Secretary of State aware that there is widespread support in the House for the policy that he has followed of bringing those charged with criminal offences before the courts? But will he reflect upon one passage in his statement where he referred to the large number of prisoners awaiting trial? Is he satisfied that the courts in Northern Ireland as at present constituted are sufficient in number to deal speedily with those charged with offences, because the speed of dealing with offences is of the very essence of his statement?

Certainly. I am concerned that so many people regularly have to come before the courts for remand purposes. Indeed, I am so concerned that we are having an internal inquiry to see how best we can speed up the process.

Is it correct that the prison officers' dispute is common to England and Wales and that prisoners charged with very serious offences are not able to appear before the courts in England and Wales? If so, why is it necessary to adopt legislative procedure for Northern Ireland different from that for England and Wales? Does it not lead to a sense of injustice in Northern Ireland?

First, the scale of the problem is different. That is why I have to take urgent action. Secondly, the dimension in Northern Ireland is different from that in Great Britain. In Northern Ireland, the prison officers' main demand is for more than the £3 per day special allowance. They want a £5 special allowance. That is the core of their complaint. In keeping with the third year pay restraint policy, I have offered, and have not been prepared to go further than, an increase of 10 per cent.

In view of the Secretary of State's main responsibility, which is to ensure the maintenance of law and order in Northern Ireland, does he accept that the majority of hon. Members will feel that his regrettable action was nevertheless totally justified? Will he make clear whether it applies only to remands. since there was a suggestion in one question that people were to be tried in their absence? Am I not right in saying that it relates purely to remands?

Secondly, will the Secretary of State point out to the Prison Officers' Association, or the members involved, the grave consequences of action of this kind to the future liberty of the people of this country?

Yes, and I have issued statements to that effect. I am obliged to the hon. and learned Gentleman for raising those points. It does not affect trials. Apart from those on remand, it affects new entrants as well. Consequently, even if all those on remand are held in the permanent gaols, we shall still have a trickle of new entrants into the temporary gaol.

Will my right hon. Friend reflect upon the two extremely inaccurate statements that he made in the House this afternoon concerning those who, he said, had committed murder or aided the commission of murder, and, secondly, his totally unwarranted attack upon the solicitors, often provided by the court itself, who represent those charged with what are known as terrorist offences? Would he not, upon reflection, agree that the wiser course in this circumstance, however regrettable, would be to suspend the hearings of prisoners due for remand until the prison officers work normally again?

I prefer to stand by the phrase that I used—"charges that have been made"—and I want my hon. Friend to understand that of the first 97 prisoners who have been transferred to Foyle prison 60 are charged with terrorist offences—

14 with murder, nine with attempted murder, five with explosives offences, 13 with firearms offences—

I have not yet used the word "convicted". I hope my hon. Friend will listen. These charges are being laid before suspected terrorists.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Throughout my presence in this House and many decades before I came to the House, it has always been taken that it is not permitted to make an attack on a judge or the judiciary in any part of the United Kingdom. The Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland, Sir Robert Lowry, ordered the release of two prisoners because they did not appear personally before him or before magistrates in the courts. My right hon. Friend this afternoon said that the people who are concerned about the nonappearance of those people in court are those who regularly defend IRA prisoners. I take that—and I am certain that the Lord Chief Justice himself will take it so—as something of a slur on him and on his person. I ask you to give your opinion on the remarks made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

Order. There was no personal attack on any individual that I heard this afternoon in the exchanges.