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Mr. Ashdown : I am grateful to you for your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is ironic that the hon. Gentleman who raised that point of order ranged very widely in his own speech, as did the Secretary of State. I understand why the hon. Member for Eastbourne sought to interrupt. It is because these are uncomfortable words for him. The hon. Gentleman takes a close interest in these matters. I was in Dublin and Belfast last week. What the Prime Minister did was cheered to the echo by those in the IRA who would wish to see the Extradition Act in the South of Ireland not renewed, and it was cheered to the echo by the extremists in the North who would wish to see undermined our capacity to review the Anglo-Irish Agreement. It was also cheered to the echo by those who wish to see relations between the Irish Government and the British Government at their worst possible level because they know that that would damage the fight against terrorism.
I find it odd that this week we are asked to consider a basically good measure when last week the Prime Minister in her handling of these affairs unwittingly, but nevertheless seriously, damaged our capacity to fight the very extremists that the Bill seeks to target. As the Secretary of State fairly and rightly said, many items in the Bill do not attract any kind of excitement or opposition. One is bound to welcome the amendment of the franchise so that those who have been in Northern Ireland for three months can vote in elections. That is in line with the practice throughout the United Kingdom and I am sure that it is the right thing to do. It is also right to amend the disqualification period so that it runs from the end of a sentence rather than from the beginning.
While I am on the subject of sentences, I should say how much we welcome the Government's view that we should also review the whole question of remission for those in prison convicted for acts of terrorism. Until now they have received as of right a 50 per cent. remission whereas the ordinary common criminal in Britain--if there can be such a thing--has to earn remission of only up to
Column 7130 per cent. The public and those committed to fighting terrorism do not understand why that is the case, although there are good historical reasons for it. I am glad to see that the Government are sensibly reviewing that.
The central issue of the Bill is the requirement to make a declaration. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), who spoke for the Labour party, is no longer in his place. His speech was one of the thinnest and most bankrupt that I have heard in terms of the arguments used for opposing the declaration. The hon. Gentleman's arguments rested on three or four basic principles. Time after time he set up a straw man, knocked him down, and then patted himself on the back and said that that was a reason for not accepting the Government proposals.
First, the hon. Gentleman spoke about section 9 of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1978 and he said--I hope that I am not misquoting him in his absence--that the Bill was not necessary because all the provisions of that section were already in position and would do the job. In that case, I cannot see his objection to the Bill. If that is the substance of the Labour party's argument, what is wrong with the Bill? Of course, those who have studied the Bill know perfectly well that it does something extra. It takes the general aim in that section and targets it precisely in a way which, if it is right, can be helpful.
The hon. Gentleman's second argument was that the provisions were unworkable. He said that that was because people would make declarations and then simply break them. He is right at least to identify that as a potential problem in the Bill, because that is what has happened so frequently in Irish history. Organisations that were proscribed simply changed their names and reappeared. The hon. Gentleman must surely realise that the Bill has two parts, and that the second part gives sanctions to the courts so that if someone breaks the declaration, the courts can do something to put the matter right. The hon. Gentleman's argument did not stand up on that basis either.
Thirdly, the hon. Gentleman said that this would cause a whole string of by -elections, with the result that the voice of the IRA would come through. On that, he was exposed by an intervention by the hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross), who said that there are few wards or constituencies in Northern Ireland where the supporters of the IRA are in a majority. My view is that if the by-elections were called--it is a possibility--the likelihood is that they would be called on the specific issue of violence.
Mr. Ashdown : Yes, and on what was said. That is a narrow issue, and while there may be some temptation on the part of those who espouse violence in Northern Ireland to go through the election process again because of the advantage of publicity, the outcome would not be as the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North suggested. The likelihood is that there would be a defeat in most such cases.
I do not wish to concentrate too much on the speech of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North, but those who read it tomorrow will find that it betrays yet again what is becoming a depressing semblance of bias in the Labour party, which seems always to take the
Column 72Nationalist case on Northern Ireland. That is depressing because any party seeking to achieve some success in Northern Ireland must be seen to be at least even-handed, but I did not find that. Secondly, on reading that speech, anyone who takes an objective view of it will reach the conclusion that the speech was made by someone who wants his party to vote against the Bill. The whole speech was constructed to that end. The hon. Gentleman said that the Bill was ridiculous and unworkable, would make matters worse, would put things into the hands of the terrorists and be a propaganda victory. The hon. Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall), who is now on the Labour Front Bench, will correct me if I am wrong, but I understand that Labour Members will not be voting against the Bill but will abstain. If that is so, the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North should have made a different speech.
Mr. Heffer : The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, but he forgets that when the Liberal Government in the early part of the century and the Liberal party at the end of the last century argued for home rule, they were accused of supporting the Nationalist case. If he does not know that, he has not read his Liberal history. The Labour party's position is not all that different from that of the Liberal party in the past. Is the hon. Gentleman really supporting an oath being taken--[ Hon. Members :-- "Declaration."]--all right, a declaration, but it is basically an oath- -before people can stand for election to any position? Where is his Liberalism in supporting that?
Mr. Ashdown : The cause of peace in Ireland is cursed by history and by people who continually look back instead of forward. It may be that the Liberal Government took that view at the turn of the century. I have great respect for the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer), but does he not realise--it is frequently the case that the Labour party does not--that there is now a different situation in Northern Ireland from that which pertained in the early part of the century?
Anybody seeking to achieve some success in bringing peace to Northern Ireland would want to take at least a balanced view in these matters. It may be that the Labour party does. The hon. Member for Walton seems to admit that it does not, but I am not sure that that view would be taken by the hon. Member for Leicester, South. We must wait and see. The public perception of Labour's attitude is that it is a Pavlovian reaction against the Government, whatever the situation, and in favour of the Nationalist cause.
I do not pretend that this legislation is perfect. There are flaws in it, but almost no legislation is perfect. It may be that it throws up some anomalies, but the question we must ask ourselves is not whether, as a single piece of legislation, it will defeat the IRA or the Ulster Volunteer Force--of course it will not--but whether it is a useful instrument in the hands of the Government for defeating terrorism and one that does not significantly damage civil liberties. My view is that it is a useful mechanism.
People may sign the declaration knowing that they are about to overturn it, but we must not underestimate the effect of propaganda--for example, the propaganda effect of Sinn Fein signing a declaration against violence. That would be advantageous. However, the sanctions placed in the hands of the court are sensible. After all, if a court in Britain can disqualify a person from holding office because
Column 73he is a bankrupt, it is not unreasonable to disqualify a person for giving support and succour to violence and acts of terrorism.
We have some reservations about what the Government have chosen to do. As I said when I first heard the proposal, I feel that there are some problems that the Government should recognise in putting this process into operation the moment people are elected. If they sign the declaration, they can say anything they like and get free access to the airways during the election campaign, but the moment they are elected the sanctions come into operation. That opens up the possibility of exaggerating the effects of allowing people access to the airways during an election campaign for a position that they will not be allowed to hold afterwards.
The second question, which was rightly raised by the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume), is, who will bring in the court cases? Here I am somewhat in agreement with the hon. Member for Eastbourne. This provision will probably not deliver what the Government hope because the challenge will be brought by a citizen, a councillor or a full council. The Government are dodging the issue and not grasping the nettle. If this is their case, they should be prepared to take the matter up to challenge in the court. The matter should be put before the Director of Public Prosecutions or some other such person so that the Government carry this forward. I am afraid that many will fear for their lives if they bring such an action, and this may militate against the best effect that the Bill can achieve.
One or two technical concerns must be voiced at this stage. My first concern is about legal aid. Many people who might bring a case against a councillor would be deterred if the entire financial burden fell on them. What protection can be offered in that case, and what protection might be offered against the inevitable intimidation that would follow? The Alliance party of Northern Ireland has said that the Attorney-General should bring these cases, for the reasons that I have set out. We need to know why the Government have decided not to have the Attorney-General or some body to bring the case on their behalf rather than leaving it to the citizen.
No mention is made of political parties bringing cases. Has the Minister considered that if there is no financial aid a party might have resources when an individual would not? A party case would also protect individuals from intimidation. What will be used by way of evidence? It would be useful if the Minister--if not now, then later--could explain what a citizen living in Northern Ireland might have to bring before the High Court as evidence if he or she wished to bring a prosecution under the Bill.
Those points having been made, the general principle should be followed through. There are issues which might well be amended in Committee. However, I believe that in this instance the Government have hit on a reasonable instrument which may assist in the battle against terrorism and violence from both sides in Northern Ireland. On that basis, the proposals deserve the support in principle of my party tonight and they will get it.
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Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle) : I wish to say a few words because I want those in Northern Ireland who read our debates in Hansard to know that there are some mainland British Members of Parliament from another part of the United Kingdom who share the anger, frustration and shame of ordinary, decent, law-abiding people who want to serve in civic life and serve their communities who must sit side by side with men of violence. I want those people to be aware that on this side of the water we understand their feelings.
I have no illusion about the difficulties of making legislation such as this stick. Dealing with the IRA with an Act of Parliament is like controlling a mad dog with a paper chain. I have no illusions about the difficulties, but, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said, should we pass down on the other side of the street? Should we just do nothing because of all the criticisms that have been levelled today at the Bill?
The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), the Opposition spokesman, could not suggest a better alternative. At one stage he was forced in this Chamber, which for centuries has stood for freedom under the law, to wave the rag of the IRA and Sinn Fein to buttress his argument. Of course Sinn Fein will not argue that the Bill will harm it. I thought that the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) made one of his best speeches so far in the Chamber, and I agree with him that much of the speech of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North was very weak.
Let us consider the argument that Sinn Fein would force by-elections. Of course it may force them, but, as the hon. Member for Yeovil said, it will do that on the narrow point of violence. How much support will Sinn Fein receive? I was told in Northern Ireland that it might have a sure chance only of winning the Lower Falls road ward. It would certainly not win many other wards on that basis. There is an argument that the Attorney-General should take issue. I see little point in the Attorney-General losing what reputation he has as a man of the law rather than a man of the Government, as a man involved in the legal process rather than a man who is the instrument of political will, by pursuing one political party or another. That would be a dangerous innovation.
It is interesting that the very people who argue that the Attorney-General should become involved in the political process in this instance also suggest that it is wrong that the Attorney-General in southern Ireland should view the Patrick Ryan affair on purely legal instead of political grounds and argue that he should be taking a political decision. We all hope that he will take that extradition decision.
The Bill is a fair compromise. Of course we could consider more draconian measures such as proscription. However, we should be careful because, if we adopt more draconian measures, we will not be any more effective on the ground in Northern Ireland, but we will give the political oxygen that the IRA and Sinn Fein need in international opinion. We should be aware of that danger. I took grave exception to the comment of the hon. Members for Yeovil and for Kingston upon Hull, North about my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister does not speak in the desiccated language of chanceries. She is not a professional diplomat. She speaks instinctively for what the British
Column 75people believe in. She speaks for their frustration at delays in extradition. However, nothing that my right hon. Friend has said should be construed as being in any way anti our many friends in the Republic. That point will be repeated, I am sure.
The overwhelming majority of decent people in the Republic, the overwhelming majority of members of the Dail, and certainly all members of the Government of the Republic are as committed as we are to dealing with terrorism. Their stakes in this matter are almost as high, if not higher, than ours. We might lose the Province, but they might lose their country if the IRA wins. It was sad that some of my hon. Friends last Thursday described the actions of the Irish Government as a double cross. They were no such thing. We should sympathise with their difficulties and encourage the decent people who are trying to expedite the process under the laws of the Republic.
In this debate we should avoid extremist language and accept that this Bill, like any Bill on these matters, has limitations. However, it is an essential first step, and as such it is welcome.
Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) : This Bill is a bitter-sweet pill for my constituents. It removes a long-standing grievance and injustice by intending to restore the franchise to more than 10,000 people who for many years have been unable to vote in local government elections in Northern Ireland. It took a long time for that reform to come about. That is a natural act of justice which should have been implemented many years ago, certainly at the commencement of direct rule in 1972-73. We are happy to accept that it will now be in place before the local government elections in May 1989.
The part of the Bill which we find bitter to swallow and with which we cannot agree is the part which will, if it is passed, enforce candidates at the next local government elections to make the declaration against terrorism. We oppose and disagree with the proposed legislation because it will have a contrary effect to that which the Government have given as the reason for its implementation.
When anyone from Northern Ireland, particularly a member of the SDLP, speaks about violence, it is always necessary to prefix one's remarks by stating that the SDLP is totally and implacably opposed to all forms of violence, be they actual, verbal or insinuated. Our history and, more important, our record of performance since our foundation in 1973 show that that statement is irrefutable. The declaration of non-violence provided for in clauses 2 to 9 will have an immediate effect. It will cause increased tension within the council chambers. It will lead to a heightening of community tensions. It will also have a totally contrary effect to the Government's stated intention of in some way restricting the ability of the paramilitaries to propagate their evil ways by preventing them from participating in local government.
I have had 28 years' experience of local government in Northern Ireland, part of it spent under the old regime up to 1973 and some 15 years under the new regime. I have no doubt that both paramilitary groupings, Loyalist and Republican, will sign the declaration without any compunction whatsoever. We already have evidence that the Republican paramilitaries will sign such a declaration.
Column 76So much for the intended effect of preventing people who subscribe to acts of violence from participating in local government in Northern Ireland. It is ironic that the Government in the past encouraged the paramilitaries to participate in the democratic process by providing funds and assets. There has now been a complete turnaround which will simply give the paramilitaries a tremendous propaganda weapon which will be used in two ways.
First, for the rest of the world, it will be used as an illustration or an argument to support the case that they can promote their cause only by violence instead of using the democratic process. That argument and that propaganda will be listened to, particularly in North America and in certain parts of Europe.
Secondly--additionally or alternatively--they will take part in the local democratic process in spite of the declaration they have signed, and use their suspensions and their court cases, which possibly will go to the highest court in the land, and the election campaigns, as an on-going daily propaganda weapon which will give front-page headlines to the very cause to which we all are opposed--the use of violence for political purposes.
The proposals are all the more idiotic because they are totally unnecessary. As has already been said, under section 21 of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1978, section 9 of the 1987 Act and section 10 of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1984, such support for proscribed organisations or any attempt to encourage support for such organisations, making any contribution to their funds, giving assistance in any way or arranging any meetings of a proscribed organisation are already criminal offences.
The Government must explain to the House why they have not used any of those provisions to produce the effect that they are trying to achieve under the proposed legislation. There is further legislation in article 9 of the Public Order (Northern Ireland) Act 1987, which was the successor to the Prevention of Incitement to Hatred Act, which makes it an offence for anyone to use words or behaviour that is likely to cause the furtherance of violence or even hatred or tension between the two communities. That provision has not been used.
The Northern Ireland legislative statute book is weighed down with legislation that can be used for the very purposes for which the Government are trying to argue that they need this legislation. Therefore, why has the proposed legislation containing the declaration been brought before the House? We do not have to look too far. It is an exercise in trying to pretend that a new package of anti-terrorist legislation is being promoted that will in some way lessen the impact of terrorism in Northern Ireland. Nothing is further from reality.
Clause 6, to which many hon. Members have referred, explains what is meant by a breach of the declaration of non-violence. The more one reads of the proposed legislation, the more one must despair of the consequences which will arise from its implementation. The Bill fails to make clear what standard of support or what measure will be applied to support or alleged support for a proscribed organisation is banned by the Bill. It appears that any word or deed in support of a proscribed organisation or an act of violence will be a breach of the terms of a councillor's declaration and hence is such an action. Here we enter a legal quagmire that will bog down the courts of
Column 77Northern Ireland and the higher courts of appeal in years to come, with the propaganda to which I have already referred attaching to it.
In the absence of any guidance in the Bill, judges will be given an impossible task because of the difficulty of interpretation. For example, clause 6(3)(a) describes a breach of the declaration, and uses the words :
"whether the expression of support or approval is made by spoken or written words, the display of any written matter or by other behaviour".
The expression, "other behaviour" is totally open-ended. What does it mean? As I said, I have been involved in local government for a considerable time and I can give some examples of what it might mean to people on the ground.
If a resolution condemning an act of violence comes before a council, and a councillor does not respond positively to that condemnation, is he or she thereby demonstrating support for the act of violence, although he or she has done absolutely nothing to demonstrate such an attitude? Or let us suppose, as often happens, that an incident has occurred in the local district and a request is made by the chair for a minute's silence in respect for someone who has been killed or has suffered a tragic loss, be they Loyalist or Republican. If a councillor remains seated, is that an act of support for an act of violence which led to a death or a murder? Those are practical problems which will arise in council chambers.
If a person attends a public meeting outside a council chamber at which a proscribed organisation or supporters of a proscribed organisation publicly declare their support for a policy of violence, is that an offence, and has that person to prove his attendance as being against the policy promulgated from the platform? If he remains silent, will his behaviour be interpreted as support for that violence?
What will happen if a public representative supports a notice or motion in a council chamber proposed by a member of a political party which supports violence? Hon. Members have constantly referred to members of Sinn Fein as the only supporters of violence in the council chambers, but I have sat in council chambers and in the Assembly of Northern Ireland with people from every party except my own and the small Alliance party among members who have supported and used violence in the furtherance of political objectives. The list of possibilities stretches into absurd infinity, yet we are being presented with the Bill as a vehicle for the prevention of terrorism within our council chambers.
It is clear that the Bill will set the extremists in the council chambers at each others' throats and the process of local democracy and respect for it will be sacrificed on the altar of the legislation. Furthermore, it will enable the councillors of a particular party, if they have a majority in a council chamber, to use ratepayers' money to pursue the minority parties on every word, date, action or omission which they determine is something to do with, or can be interpreted in some loose way as support for, a particular cause or group that supports violence.
Last week, the Minister presented a White paper which says that legislation will be introduced to prevent political parties from using ratepayers' money to pursue political objectives, yet the Bill will enable majority parties in council chambers to pursue minority parties for real or imagined acts in contravention of the declaration of non-violence. The House can take it from me that it will happen on a month-to-month basis. The Bill puts us on a long and slippery slope of legislation and confrontation in
Column 78Northern Ireland. There is a total contradiction in Government attitudes as represented in the Bill and in last week's White Paper. Clause 7, which, too, has been referred to by many hon. Members, enables a group or person to take legal action. As the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) made clear, the Bill provides that a councillor or an elector can initiate on his own behalf and at his own expense a course of action or a prosecution under the Bill. That is what the Government say can happen. The Government argue that it is impossible to have jury trials in Northern Ireland because jurors would be subjected to intimidation and acts of violence. Will someone explain the contradiction in those attitudes? A person will be able to prosecute someone whom he believes to be a member of a paramilitary organisation but will not be able to take part in the collective decision of a jury.
Clause 6 (a)(ii), which deals with terrorism, refers to "violence for political ends connected with the affairs of Northern Ireland"--
not violence for political ends, only that connected with Northern Ireland. That is a strange phrase to find in a Bill dealing with terrorism.
What will happen if a person supports violence used by the Government for political ends? In the past, councillors have supported such action taken by the Government. Will Sinn Fein be able to take action against those councillors and local representatives? We are setting a pattern whereby extremists on both sides of the council chamber will take legal potshots at one another and bring local councils into disrepute.
I know of many councillors, by reputation, and personally, who have participated in the execution of violence for political purposes. I am talking of those not of a Sinn Fein persuasion but of a Unionist persuasion. They have manned barricades, turned people away from their work or intimidated them to prevent them from going to work because it did not suit their political objectives. All those people will merrily sign the declaration with what they consider to be a clear conscience.
Many people are sitting in council chambers tonight, in the Unionist tradition, who have been connected with--I do not want to go further because of the sub judice rule--the manufacture and storage of arms. They have connections with paramilitary organisations such as Ulster Resistance- -that was refuted by the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson)--and when arms were found that allegedly belonged to Ulster Resistance, the Democratic Unionist party issued a statement withdrawing its support for Ulster Resistance. If my memory serves me right, part of that statement said that it was involved to maintain a well-disciplined army of men. For what purpose is a well-disciplined army of men maintained, unless it is, at some stage, to initiate an act of violence in pursuance of a political objective?
If matters carry on as I think they will, not only will local government be brought into disrepute but there will be few councillors in Northern Ireland. There will be only SDLP members and a small number from the Alliance party to carry on local government business. I ask the Secretary of State to recognise, even at this late stage, the turmoil and stress that the Bill will cause in local government and to pull back from implementing the clauses that deal with the declaration on violence.
The hon. Member for Eastbourne referred to the need to transfer substantive powers to local government in
Column 79Northern Ireland. I refer the hon. Gentleman to the judicial tribunal of the early 1970s, which found that, of the nine causes of civil disorder in Northern Ireland, seven arose from the maladministration and performance of local government in the execution of its duties.
For some reason, the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) introduced the issue of parole and said that the intended measures for Northern Ireland will give it parity with the rest of the United Kingdom. That is not true ; there are no jury trials, so there is a different sentencing procedure. Once a third of the sentence has been served here, parole can be considered.
I ask the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary to consider not the legal jargon but the practical consequences of what will happen in council chambers, the courts and the press in Northern Ireland in future. I ask them to consider with an open mind what has been said about the gross deficiencies of the Bill. I hope that even at this late stage they will draw back from setting this precedent. 7.46 pm
Mr. Anthony Coombs (Wyre Forest) : I make it plain that I strongly support the principle of the Bill and will support it in the Lobby tonight, especially the part relating to the declaration on terrorism of those elected to office.
I found it appallingly disappointing, but perhaps not surprising, to hear the speech of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara). At a time when terrorists have killed more than 80 people in Northern Ireland this year, when the majority of people want this measure--as the opinion poll on Ulster Television showed--and when local government in Northern Ireland must be buttressed and must gain the acceptability of people in Northern Ireland, the hon. Gentleman could not put forward one positive measure as an alternative to the Bill. I found that quite appalling.
The strongest arguments in favour of the Bill are those of principle. It was clear from a visit that a number of hon. Members paid to Northern Ireland last week that the majority of people there want a sensible, sensitive system of devolved government. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) that it must be the first objective of the British Government to bring that about. A devolved system of government will not receive general assent unless it is perceived as fair, objective and balanced and unless there is confidence in the existing system of local government. The sectarian history in Northern Ireland is tense and goes back a long way. The hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) gave the difference between the present and the past. Regarding Northern Ireland, Harold Nicolson said :
"The Irish themselves have no sense of the past : for them the present began on October 17th 1171, when Henry II landed at Waterford."
There is cynicism among the Catholics, who rightly feel that they have been discriminated against over the years, and among the Protestants who, from the home rule crisis of 1886, when they removed themselves from the main stream of British politics, to the partition of 1920, when Austin Chamberlain hoped for a union in Ireland, with their suspicions, however wrong, of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, have been worried that they will be
Column 80marginalised and nudged out of the United Kingdom. Whether that is right or wrong, it is the present feeling among Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland.
That cynicism about effective local government can only be exacerbated by what happened in the examples given by the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Forsythe). The chairman of Fermanagh district council, a Sinn Feiner, refused to condemn the events at Enniskillen. We hear of Gerry Dokerty, who was elected to the Londonderry council, despite having previously tried to blow up the Guildhall in London. On our visit, we met a gentleman in Newry who was aggrieved because he had to sit in a council chamber two places in front of a gentleman who he had a pretty good idea was involved in the assassination of his brother-in-law.
Against that background, it is not surprising that local government in Northern Ireland does not have the best reputation or that the best young people do not wish to support local democracy in practice by becoming members of local councils. If local democracy and effective administration are to gain the people's confidence, the need for the Bill, and especially the declaration, is imperative. I have three worries about the legislation, the lesser of which concerns the declaration, which begins :
"I declare that, if elected, I will not by word or deed". That provision does not cover candidates while they are taking part in elections. I understand the statement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that we cannot study every utterance of every candidate--although in England a police officer can arrest a person for contravening the provisions of the Race Relations Act 1976. Such people are by no means as public as candidates in a public election. As constituted, the Bill may lead to a potential for mockery whereby terrorists fight a campaign on terrorist principles, having signed the declaration. They may say, "If I am elected, I shall not be able to say what I have been saying during the campaign." I have some sympathy with the argument of the hon. Member for Antrim, South that a stronger declaration would make repudiating terrorism and a list of proscribed organisations a condition of candidacy. The quality of debate and of those taking part in, and not merely those who win, elections is important and underpins democratic values. My second concern is with the penalties that will attach to those who break their declarations. The Government's discussion paper talked about a serious threat to "legitimate political activity", a "severe challenge to democracy" and a "deep public concern". The proposed penalties for breaking the law, which try to deal with that deep public concern, are only civil, not criminal. The maximum period of disqualification from office is five years. Surely advocating terrorism is tantamount to behaviour which, under the Public Order (Northern Ireland) Order 1987, is likely to arouse hatred or fear in the general population and is a criminal offence leading to imprisonment.
Surely arousing sectarian fear and hatred and advocating terrorism are at least as bad as arousing racial hatred. A person who transgresses against the provisions of the Race Relations Act can be arrested by a policeman. That is a criminal matter which is tried in a Crown court and carries a penalty of up to two years' imprisonment. I cannot see the difference between inciting sectarian hatred and inciting racial hatred, especially in Northern Ireland.
Column 81I hope that the Government will ensure that transgression of the declaration is a serious criminal offence, not merely a civil one. Thirdly, I am worried about methods of enforcement. I do not believe that civil action will be particularly appropriate or effective. It would be illogical if it were, given the way in which this has been recognised by the Government in the speech by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and in the discussion paper. The conclusion to the consultation paper states :
"The Government accepts its responsibility to safeguard local democracy and to seek to prevent the deliberate destabilisation of political life in the Province by apologists for violence." The Bill, which is meant to countermand that destabilisation applies merely to individuals attacking other citizens through a civil action.
Mr. Mallon : The hon. Gentleman is making an interesting speech, but there is one glaring omission. I probably have the unique record of being the only living person who has been disqualified from a Northern Ireland Assembly. My crime was not support of terrorism or anything like that but the fact that I had the audacity to sit in an Irish Parliament. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman will bend his mind to this anomaly, which is a delightful irony. This Parliament is setting up an inter-parliamentary tier with the Parliament of the Republic of Ireland, but the statute book still provides that someone from the North of Ireland who sits in the Parliament of the Republic of Ireland should be disqualified from not only this House but any assembly in the North of Ireland.
The Government's major argument--as adduced by my hon. Friend the Under- Secretary of State in the article in The Daily Telegraph --for not taking action on behalf of citizens for transgressions of the declaration, is that it would lead to difficulties with political argument and impartiality. Surely those difficulties are addressed already in Northern Ireland by the Government or their agencies, the Crown prosecution service or the Director of Public Prosecutions in approving extraditions and prosecutions for far more sensitive crimes.
If the Government are concerned about the intimidation of witnesses, how much more should they be concerned about the intimidation of witnesses if the initiators of civil actions have to prosecute without any Government backing? It is crucial that the Government give a lead. Because the Bill is so important and is wanted so strongly by the moderate majority in Northern Ireland, the Government must shoulder the responsibility of seeing the legislation through whenever the code is broken.
No doubt many hon. Members will accuse the Government of being overweening, malicious and offending against civil liberties. Those hon. Members should take comfort from the words of an American politician who knew something about civil strife in his country. Abraham Lincoln said :
"It has long been a grave question whether any government not too strong for the liberties of its people can be strong enough to maintain its liberties in great emergencies."
Column 82These are times in Northern Ireland, sadly, of great emergencies. I support the Bill, but I hope that the Government will see fit to strengthen it in Committee in the way that I have suggested. 7.59 pm
Mr. Benn : Perhaps other hon. Members have said the same thing. This is a dangerous little Bill, made no less offensive because of the fact that it will be wholly and completely ineffective, as has been pointed out by other hon. Members. I have no doubt that the Secretary of State was told to do something after the recent explosions, so he came up with the ban on Sinn Fein people appearing on broadcasts and this little Bill to get a person to take an oath before he stands as a candidate.
It is strange to me, however, that the people against whom the Secretary of State has directed his anger are those using the electoral process. If someone stands as a candidate, he is using the ballot box to advance his cause and, if elected, he is aiming to use the media to advance it too.
As the Secretary of State did, I want to go through the proposals that have been made in Parliament in my lifetime, which would bring peace to Ireland. Partition--failed ; direct rule--failed ; Stormont--failed ; power-sharing- -failed ; internment without trail--failed ; sending in troops--I was in the Cabinet which did that--failed ; strip searching--failed ; plastic bullets--failed ; Diplock courts--failed ; supergrass trials, the Prevention of Terrorism Act 1974, the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the shoot- to-kill policy--failed ; and extradition is not doing very well.
Any other assembly in the world that was discussing the situation in Northern Ireland today would be going through that list, but only the British Parliament is able to gather together and congratulate the Minister, with qualification, on producing a Bill that imposes an oath. [Interruption.] An oath and a declaration are merely religious or secular words to describe the same thing.
I have been looking into the history of this matter, as I am a bit of a historian. I looked up the Act of the Scottish Parliament of 29 August 1681:
"for the security of the protestant Religion against Papists and Phanaticks ; Together with the Oath to be taken by all Persons in Publick Trusts".
It is a marvellous Act of Parliament and requires people to denounce and renounce the Pope and all his works and includes in it a pledge not to
"take up Arms against the King"
or ever rise in arms against the King.
The principle of trying to deal with religion, or religious or political movements, by oath is absurd. There is a more recent parallel. President Botha said that Nelson Mandela could come out of prison if he gave a pledge comparable with the one that the Secretary of State asks us to impose by this legislation. Very much to Nelson Mandela's credit, he said that he would rather stay in prison that renounce his commitment to a free South Africa. I know that there
Column 83are differences, because the franchises and circumstances there are different, but the point that the House will not discuss is, what is terrorism?
Were those people who were fighting to get rid of the Russian troops from Afghanistan terrorists? Are members of the African National Congress in South Africa terrorists? Were members of the Maquis in France, who threw bombs into cafe s where there were Germans terrorists? The reality is--the House had better face it--that violence has been used in the British empire. I have met numerous terrorists who ended up having tea with the Queen, having been imprisoned for the same sort of offence that the Secretary of State is now seeking to impose with his little Bill. Gandhi, who believed in non-violence, was put in gaol, as were Nehru and Makarios. They were all in gaol because they were members of nationalist movements. All that I am saying to the Secretary of State--he knows it, whether he wants to hear it or not--is that we cannot beat national movements by these methods. We can try as hard as we like, but we cannot do it.