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Encouragement of Terrorism Offences

Volume 685: debated on Thursday 10 December 2020

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(James Morris.)

At the outset, I feel that it is only right that I set out the motivation behind my request for this debate. I want this evening to take the House to the townland of Legananny, five miles outside Castlewellan in the parliamentary constituency of South Down in Northern Ireland—to a quiet, rural location, where both traditions lived together in relative harmony throughout much of the time now described by many as the troubles.

On 3 May 1985, William Heenan, a 52-year-old widower, went outside to feed some livestock in the yard. This was his home, along with his 12-year-old son, Sammy; sadly, William’s wife had passed away two years previous. It was the last morning that William would ever feed his animals. Sammy Heenan, William’s son, is now a grown man with his own family. I have known him for some time. He is a man of great character, great resolve and very strong faith. If his late father had grown old to see his son grow up, Sammy would have made him very proud. As a 12-year-old, Sammy’s life changed forever. This is his account of that morning in 1985:

“When I was a 12 year old child, I lived 5 miles north of rural Castlewellan. On that fateful morning on the 3rd May 1985 at 7am, I went out to find my father brutally murdered after I heard his final haunting and dying screams. He had been forced to his knees and shot twice in the top of the head at point blank range by a South Down PIRA gunman. The image of his face bloodied and unrecognisable as he lay on the ground that morning will be etched on my mind forever. After which I had to run to a neighbour’s house half a mile away to raise the alarm sobbing and in a state of utter despair.”

Sammy Heenan’s life story is replicated for many across Northern Ireland—mothers and fathers, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, grandparents, friends: murdered by terrorists. The broken-hearted remain, to live a life with psychological and physical scars that will never heal, and it is for those victims that I have asked for this debate today. Despite the scars, despite the lifetime of grief and of anguish, despite the trauma inflicted on them that no one should face, there are those within our society who glorify the terror that caused that pain, and who revel in the actions of those who planted bombs or shot people in the head. Sadly, Madam Deputy Speaker, some of them are Members of this House.

A little over five miles from the very spot where the IRA murdered William Heenan, in the town of Castlewellan sits the McNulty-Magorrian advice centre. It operates as the constituency office of the Member of this House for South Down (Chris Hazzard). For your information, Madam Deputy Speaker, McNulty was killed in a premature bomb explosion during an IRA attack on Castlewellan RUC station in January 1972, while Magorrian died after being shot by the Army in August 1974; both were Provisional IRA terrorists.

Given that an office has been named after two terrorists and a Member of this House is performing his role from that office, one would think that this Parliament—the bastion of democratic principles, the very place where parliamentary democracy was founded—would stop such an affront to democracy. This House knows only too well the barbaric actions of terrorists: Airey Neave, Ian Gow and Reverend Robert Bradford were serving Members of this House murdered by members of the same terrorist organisation that we have a parliamentary constituency office named after in South Down. Yet action is not taken.

I have raised this issue with the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, who has responded by saying she has no grounds to investigate, and, likewise, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority says it is not a matter for it. By doing nothing, we facilitate—indeed, financially support—an MP who daily glorifies terrorists. I urge the Minister this evening to undertake to address this issue at the earliest possible opportunity.

In this instance, it is a case of doing what is right—of recognising the hurt and pain this causes innocent victims and saying, “This House will not facilitate or allow this to happen any longer.”

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I know that the Minister in particular understands this issue.

I know Sammy Heenan as well, so I understand the matter that my hon. Friend raises. Does she share the concerns of many others outside that family circle that the local council in Newry, Mourne and Down has named a playpark after Raymond McCreesh, one of the hunger strikers who gave their life—or committed suicide, depending on how we want to put it—at the Kesh, and who was a convicted terrorist? Does my hon. Friend agree that there is something wrong if Newry, Mourne and Down can name a playpark after a convicted terrorist? Should the House not take action against the Member for South Down?

My remarks are larger than the Heenan family and the hurt caused to them. My hon. Friend is right that the glorification of terrorism anywhere is wrong and has repercussions for innocent victims.

When I told Sammy Heenan that I had secured this debate, he asked me to make this plea on behalf of him and the many victims of terrorism in South Down:

“How can we as a progressive society in 2020 continue to countenance the repugnant naming of an MP’s constituency office in the United Kingdom after two dead IRA terrorists? The symbolism attached to this office-naming is massive and morally obscene, thus inadvertently legitimising every terrorist act perpetrated against UK citizens. I implore this Parliament to exhaust every avenue in righting this grievous wrong, which continues to cause affliction to the innocent of our country. As a Parliament, please be cognisant of our traumatism and use whatever means necessary to ensure terrorist revisionism such as this ceases to be funded and tolerated.”

I cannot add any more to that, Madam Deputy Speaker.

It is important that, as we in Northern Ireland look to the future, those who want to revel in the evil deeds of the past, to seek to re-write that past and make acceptable the murder and mayhem terrorists imposed on our country, are not aided and abetted by our accommodation of such a perversion of what actually happened. To enable that in any way will only serve to bring about a generation who believe such heinous crimes to have been justified, acceptable and worthy of celebration.

Only this week, members of the County Armagh ladies camogie team—a Gaelic game, for those unfamiliar with the term—were videoed celebrating success on the pitch with repeated chants of, “ooh ah, up the Ra!”: a clear reference to the IRA, a proscribed terrorist organisation responsible for the killing of some 1,700 people. How utterly depressing. None of those girls was alive during the worst years of IRA terrorism, yet this chanting was part and parcel of their celebrations.

Closer to this place, earlier this year, London Young Labour tweeted a picture of the Falls Road mural dedicated to the IRA man, Bobby Sands. They wrote:

“On this day in 1981, socialist and republican Bobby Sands died as a PoW following a hunger strike during which he became an elected MP. We remember him and continue to fight for an end to imperialism and for a free and united Ireland.”

Madam Deputy Speaker, Bobby Sands was a bomber. Bobby Sands was not a prisoner of war. He was a terrorist—a man so consumed with hatred that he killed himself. Yet here we have a youth wing of the official Opposition in this place lauding this man. What does that say to victims?

There are many, many other examples of how this encouragement and glorification of terrorism happens in our society: the Policing Board member who describes the shooting of a prison officer in the head as one of the “best ops”; the Gaelic football grounds and competitions named after IRA men; and the Northern Ireland Executive Ministers who attend glorification events. Madam Deputy Speaker, if Members of any other party in this House were to do that for any terrorist event or organisation, it would not be accepted.

I have a young son, Charlie. I want him to grow up in a society that has values, that has respect for the rule of law, and where people are at peace with one another. Yet I look at a society today where the very encouragement and glorification of terrorism goes largely unchallenged. In such a society, real reconciliation cannot happen. For in such a society, those who suffer most, our victims, are not respected—they are insulted. Until this stops, until those who engage in this behaviour cease and recognise the hurt and the wrongs they do and have done, we will never have that real peace we crave.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) on securing the debate, and on the very powerful and poignant speech she delivered to the House this evening. Her comments on the brutal murder of William Heenan will have struck a chord with all who have heard the debate tonight. The loss and impact on his son Sammy Heenan, and on the rest of the family, is lifelong. I am sure that all in this House would wish to convey our deepest and sincerest condolences for his and their loss, and for all the pain that they continue to suffer. 

Certainly, as a former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, I have met too many who continue to suffer that pain and that loss. We still collectively need to do much more to be able to look to Northern Ireland’s future with a positive sense of the amazing place that it is and the incredible people there who make it such a special place, while equally knowing that the legacy of the troubles and of the past still runs very deep and knowing the pain that it continues to cause. Therefore I understand and hear that sense of the need for us to be able to look to a future beyond all of those troubling issues.

I speak as the Security Minister, and therefore look to these issues of national security across all parts of our United Kingdom. I was struck by the emphasis that the hon. Lady gave to issues relating to this House, which brought to mind the response that she received from the Leader of the House recently during business questions when she highlighted this point. The Leader of the House underlined that very clear message, saying:

“We should remember and commemorate those who were killed”,—[Official Report, 26 November 2020; Vol. 684, c. 993.]

drawing to mind the shields within this House to remember Airey Neave and Ian Gow, and stating that commemorating those who committed murder is absolutely not what we as a House should do. I understand that it is in that sense that the hon. Member for Upper Bann approaches all of this.

I want to look at the work that we do as a Government across the United Kingdom, and I am sure that the hon. Lady would join me in recognising the work that happens here and now. What do I mean by that? I mean the work of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, MI5 and others, who work tirelessly to keep people safe and have our full support for the immense contribution they make on a daily basis. I commend all those who, sometimes quietly, sometimes out of sight, help to deliver safety and security for the public in Northern Ireland and Great Britain. That ongoing work by the police and MI5 means that most people in Northern Ireland, mercifully, are not directly affected by the severe terrorist threat that endures.

It remains unacceptable that, decades on from the Good Friday agreement, there are still groups who are using and hiding bombs and bullets in residential areas, putting their own agendas above the rights of the community who want to live and thrive in peace. Where terrorism, paramilitary-style attacks and attacks on the community endure, so, too, will our efforts to tackle them. We will always do everything in our power to ensure they do not succeed.

I take this opportunity to commend the recent successes of Operation Arbacia, an ongoing Police Service of Northern Ireland-led operation into the activities of the New IRA, which has involved collaboration with partners such as MI5, Police Scotland, An Garda Síochána and the Metropolitan Police Service. In August, the Police Service of Northern Ireland arrested 10 people, all of whom have now been charged with a range of terrorism offences under the Terrorism Act 2006. Violent dissident republicans cause substantial harm to communities and the fabric of society. These arrests, I believe, are a welcome step in maintaining peace in Northern Ireland and keeping people safe from criminality and violence.

We have robust UK-wide legislation to counter the threat of terrorism and protect the public. The legislative framework was established in the Terrorism Act 2000; it was updated and strengthened in the post-9/11 era, again more recently to respond to the threat connected with the Syrian conflict and individuals travelling from this country to join terrorist groups, and then again following the attacks in the UK in 2017. Our framework provides a coherent approach, including an ideology-neutral definition of terrorism, which determines the scope of other terrorism powers and offences.

On the particular issue raised in this debate today, the Government are clear that statements that encourage or glorify terrorism are unacceptable and that individuals who make such statements should be liable for prosecution. It is an offence under section 1 of the Terrorism Act 2006 for an individual to intentionally encourage members of the public to engage in terrorism or be reckless as to whether their statements will encourage it. That applies whether or not any person is in fact encouraged or induced to engage in terrorism as a result of the individual’s statements.

The Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act 2019 updated the section 1 encouragement offence in three ways: closing a gap that existed whereby the offence would not necessarily be committed in a case where someone radicalised or sought to encourage a child or vulnerable adult to carry out an act of terrorism; ensuring extra-territorial jurisdiction applies fully to the encouragement of any act of terrorism, meaning that a person may be prosecuted in the UK for conduct that took place outside the UK that would have been unlawful had it taken place here; and increasing the maximum penalty available following a conviction from seven to 15 years’ imprisonment to reflect the seriousness of the offence. That is an appropriately broad offence of encouragement, which also covers the glorification of terrorism and ensures that perpetrators can be prosecuted appropriately.

In addition, our counter-terrorism legislative framework includes the separate offence under section 12 of the Terrorism Act 2000 of inviting support for a proscribed organisation. The 2019 Act extended the offence by making it clear that it is illegal to make statements in support of a terrorist organisation or to be reckless as to whether others will be encouraged to support the organisation.

I am always mindful of the Minister’s exceptional contribution when he was the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and I thank him for that. The council that represents my area is Ards and North Down Borough Council. It wanted to name a leisure grounds and playground after Blair Mayne, who is a hero of the second world war. It was called in because of the legal process in Northern Ireland, yet Newry, Mourne and Down District Council was able to name its play park, where children play, after a convicted terrorist who died by his own hand in the Maze. Is that right? Is that council not accountable under what the Minister has said, and can it not be made to change that name and remove it?

I appreciate and respect the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. He will understand that I am not familiar with all the circumstances or indeed whether it would be appropriate for me as a Minister to try to determine what a particular community would do, but obviously he makes an important point on how we reflect on the issue of building strong communities and looking beyond division and that sense of difference. Indeed, we should not be looking backward to the issues of the past, but looking forward to what I believe can be a positive, outward-looking, exciting future for Northern Ireland and all the young people who have not been touched directly by those issues of the past that sadly still, through family and through the impact of things such as paramilitarism and separation, touch Northern Ireland in this way.

I genuinely thank the Minister for his efforts in Northern Ireland; he did a sterling job when he was Secretary of State. The crux of this, in my mind, is the victims of South Down, where I believe this House has a responsibility, while councils sit within the Northern Ireland remit. This House needs to take action against a Member of this House who has an office named after two convicted IRA terrorists. I know that the Minister is bringing his remarks to a close, but could he clarify how we can have this investigated and, ultimately, overturned?

A number of the issues of which the hon. Lady speaks are, in essence, matters for the House and equally for some of the external bodies that maintain standards in relation to the House. I do not have direct oversight or responsibility for those particular organisations. I think I am correct in saying that the Leader of the House has that relationship on issues of policy. I will certainly draw her comments to the attention of the Leader of the House, which is probably the most appropriate way that I can approach this.

I hope the hon. Lady will have heard from me the emphasis that we give to confronting terrorism in all its forms and its glorification. Our approach to terrorism makes it illegal to make statements in support of a terrorist organisation, or to be reckless as to whether others will be encouraged to support such an organisation. It is rightly for the police and relevant prosecution services to decide whether any offence has been committed and whether it would be appropriate to bring charges in the circumstances. That is rightly a matter for the independent law enforcement agencies, not this House.

In conclusion, I would like again to sincerely thank the hon. Lady for raising these issues and all those who are working to tackle the threat of terrorism across the United Kingdom—all of the United Kingdom. Whatever their ideology or motivation, terrorists seek to undermine our way of life, but our message is clear: we will never compromise on the values that they hate. We will not allow them to encourage or glorify terrorism and push their warped view of the world on others, and we will maintain our relentless determination to tackle terrorism in all its forms.

For clarification, I will ensure that this matter, in so far as it relates to a person who has been elected to this House and is therefore perhaps a matter for Mr Speaker, is drawn to Mr Speaker’s attention.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.