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Terrorists (Selective Detention)

Volume 14: debated on Thursday 3 December 1981

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asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if, in view of the recent spate of murders and other terrorist atrocities in Northern Ireland, he will now introduce a system of selective detention for known Irish Republican Army terrorists.

No, Sir. I believe that the best way to deal with suspected terrorists is to bring them before the courts.

That is perhaps not an unexpected reply, and I thank my right hon. Friend for it. Bearing in mind the representations made to him by security advisers and the security forces in Northern Ireland, will he consider introducing some form of selective internment for suspected and known IRA terrorists, in accordance with the request by the Official Unionist Party which seeks to stand for moderation and progress in the Province? Many of us wish to see the ultimate deterrent—the death penalty—reintroduced, but we appreciate the sensitivity involved. Is it not important to take positive action to prevent the murder, arson and brutality which we have experienced recently?

No one underestimates the level of terrorist violence in Northern Ireland. I am not aware that any of my security advisers have called for the reintroduction of selective detention. I am not convinced that selective detention would produce any lasting benefit. I listen carefully to what all hon. Members say, but that is the position as I see it.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the Opposition concur with his "No, Sir" answer to the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton)? As a Minister, I had experience of internment and I tried, in my little way, to end it. I am glad to see present my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees), who was very much involved in taking over the internment problem. I can only say that the reintroduction of internment would create more problems than it would solve, if it would solve any at all. I remind the House and the hon. Member for Macclesfield, who made the proposal, that our experience showed that as soon as detention or internment was introduced, violence escalated. It de-escalated only when we ended internment and started tackling the problem through the courts.

I am grateful for what the right hon. Gentleman has said. It is worth noting that 1972—the year after detention was introduced—was the worst year for terrorist violence in the history of Northern Ireland. The period from 1976 to 1980 saw a steady improvement in the security situation, although no one underestimates how far we have to go.