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Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry): This House adjourns every year from July to October. Why does it not suspend itself if it were a question just of the length of time?

Sir Patrick Mayhew: This House is not subject to a constitutional statute that speaks of suspension. The talks process is in the Northern Ireland (Entry to Negotiations, etc) Act and is subject to such a statute. It does not fall to anyone to determine whether the House is suspended. It falls to people to decide whether it has been adjourned. There are adjournments and adjournments in the context of the Act. That is why I have had to introduce the motion--it is imposed on me by law.

The hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) made the amiable suggestion that I introduced the motion because the IRA told me to do so. At this time of night, I will allow that to speak for itself. He also thought that it might be because the forum would continue and come out with something uncomfortable. I have made it perfectly clear why I have had to introduce the motion.

I warmly endorse what has been said--and the manner in which it has been said--about the desirability of the Social Democratic and Labour party rejoining, if and when the forum is resumed, as it will be if there is a Conservative Government after the election. I repeat what I have said about, on balance, the value of the forum's work. It would be much better if the SDLP were able to resume.

I am grateful for the way in which this matter has been debated. I commend the motion to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


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Prevention of Terrorism (Northern Ireland)

11.16 pm

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Sir John Wheeler): I beg to move,

The draft order will continue in force for 12 months, from 16 June, the temporary provisions of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1996. The Act comprises a range of provisions, almost all of them temporary, which supplement the ordinary criminal law for the purposes of combating terrorism in Northern Ireland. It provides the police and the Army in Northern Ireland with specific operational powers to assist them in successfully deterring and disrupting terrorist attacks, and to enable them to bring to justice the perpetrators of serious terrorist crime. It also strengthens the criminal justice systems in certain important respects.

In particular, the Act provides for the Diplock system of non-jury trial, with its associated safeguards; for the classification of certain offences as terrorist offences unless certified otherwise by the Attorney-General; for the police and Army in certain circumstances to have powers of stop, arrest, search, entry and seizure beyond those found in ordinary criminal law; for roads to be closed; for offences against public security and public order; for the detention of terrorist suspects without trial, although that particular power is currently lapsed; for the regulation of the provision of private security services, historically a sector in which terrorists have been active; and for the special regime that operates in the police holding centres, where terrorist suspects are interviewed. The Act also provides for independent scrutiny of military complaints procedures.

I should remind the House of events as they unfolded during the early part of 1996, because it was against that background that the emergency provisions Act, then a Bill, passed through its parliamentary stages. I shall not list the atrocities. Hon. Members remember them vividly. They remember the two innocent people murdered at South Quay. They remember the people injured there, at Aldwych and in Manchester. They know that, as a result of those atrocities, many more lives were blighted for ever by terrorist thugs who think that they will get what they want by killing, maiming and bullying.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): In the light of his recital of those events, and bearing in mind the fact that in our perception the ceasefire was a sham, will the Minister accept, on behalf of his fellow Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), who is responsible for education in Northern Ireland, our congratulations on having given a sharp educational lecture to Senator Kennedy when he suggested that Sinn Fein could come into talks straight away, without a credible ceasefire?

Sir John Wheeler: I am grateful for those remarks. I can always count on my right hon.--perhaps I should add "and learned"--Friend to give sharp lectures when they are appropriate and needed.

19 Mar 1997 : Column 1012

Under cover of darkness, the terrorists continued their nightly punishment attacks, and behind the scenes they continued to train, to organise and to plan more evil.

Then, on 7 October, the provisional IRA detonated two car bombs, one shortly after the other and without a warning, inside Thiepval barracks, Lisburn. Thirty-eight people were injured, and Warrant Officer James Bradwell later died of his injuries. More recently, Lance-Bombardier Stephen Restorick was murdered by the provisional IRA while checking a car at a vehicle checkpoint in Bessbrook.

Those incidents are notable on account of the casualties; they are also notable in another respect. The Thiepval bombing illustrates the provisional IRA's callousness in deliberately placing the second bomb outside the medical centre--the one place that, as a result of the first bomb, could be guaranteed to be crowded with the injured and those attending to them.

The Bessbrook incident, a sniper attack at a vehicle checkpoint, illustrates starkly the provisional IRA's complete disregard of the general public, and of anything or anyone that gets in their way. Even schoolchildren merit no special consideration. Only yesterday, security forces recovered two mark 16 mortars close to a school in Derrylin, County Fermanagh. There are countless other similar examples.

In January and February this year, serious terrorist attacks were occurring at the rate of one every three or four days--and that does not include attacks aborted or thwarted. Already this year there have been two deaths, including the brutal murder of Mr. John Slane last Friday at his home in Belfast.

Here I pay tribute to the courage and dedication of the men and women of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, supported as always by their family members, and to the armed forces, to whom the people of these islands owe so much. Their professionalism is reflected in the considerable catalogue of successes achieved against the terrorists in recent months.

Repeatedly, terrorist operations have been prevented, some at advanced stages of preparation, weapons have been recovered and arrests made. Last December, for example, five significant finds of arms were made. Nine such finds were made in January, eight in February, and four in the first week of this month. Since the beginning of January, there have been 155 arrests in connection with terrorist crime, and 57 people have been charged with terrorist-related offences. Several terrorist operations have been disrupted at an advanced stage.

Among the significant quantity of weaponry recovered since the end of November are 17 mortars and rocket launchers, over 5,000 lb of explosives and a number of firearms, including several automatic weapons and nearly 2,500 rounds of ammunition.

Several of these finds would not have been possible were it not for the special powers that the emergency provisions Act provides--powers to search, for example, or to stop. There can be no doubt that lives have been saved because of successful security forces operations, and because the security forces can rely on the emergency powers.

Mr. Phil Gallie (Ayr): My right hon. Friend referred to a number of successes achieved by our armed services.

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Does he agree that the armed services are always working on a knife edge, and that they never know when danger will strike? On that basis, does he agree that their performance has been absolutely superb? Is it not remarkable that so few errors of judgment have been made over many years by members of our armed services who have perhaps acted marginally out of line with their instructions?

Sir John Wheeler: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is right. I understand the special interest that he espouses in connection with the skills of our armed forces serving in Northern Ireland.

Special provisions of the kind contained in the Emergency Provisions Act have been in place in Northern Ireland since the early 1970s. Successive Governments have felt them necessary, and successive Parliaments have voted to keep the provisions. As the House is only too well aware, in the intervening period the people of Northern Ireland have experienced only a brief respite in the evil campaign, which, but for their resilience and successive Governments' resolve, would have destroyed the fabric of their society.

The Government have consistently said that their aim is to see the emergency powers dismantled, and that the powers will remain only for as long as they are necessary to counter terrorism. It is important that emergency powers of the kind I have described are regularly reviewed and questions asked about whether they continue to be needed and about whether they have been used fairly and properly, as Parliament intended.

For this reason, the Act incorporates a mechanism to ensure that it is reviewed annually. To inform the House's debate this evening, we shall rely on the report published earlier this month by Mr. John Rowe QC, the independent reviewer of the operation of the Act during 1996.

I take this opportunity to say that the Government are especially grateful to Mr. Rowe, who, at short notice, completed his review and produced his report to a much more constrained time scale than normal to accommodate this year's curtailed parliamentary calendar. Mr. Rowe has examined both the use made of the various provisions of the Act against the background of the prevailing security situation in Northern Ireland and their utility in terms of deterrence since it came into effect in August last year.

Mr. Rowe's conclusion is unequivocal:

He adds--and the House will, I know, be reassured by this--that, so far as he can see, the provisions of the Act have been used fairly and carefully and he has not seen any examples of abuse, nor has he been told of any.

Mr. Rowe notes:

He adds that these make specific provision for arrest according to law, and proper judicial and trial procedures, and they should be borne in mind when considering whether the emergency legislation has been used fairly and properly.

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Mr. Rowe goes on:

In addition to the invaluable role performed by Mr. Rowe, we are fortunate to have the services of a number of other distinguished independent observers, who monitor particular areas of the emergency legislation. I am happy to say that the recently published reports of the independent commissioners for the holding centres, Sir Louis Blom-Cooper and Dr. Bill Norris, and of the independent assessor of military complaints procedures, Mr. David Hewitt, provide further reassurance that the emergency powers are not being abused.

For the fourth successive year, the independent commissioners have said that they have found nothing to give anyone the slightest cause for concern about the care and treatment of detainees held in police custody by uniformed officers at the holding centres. For his part, the independent assessor of military complaints procedures notes the continuing low level of formal, non-criminal complaints against the Army--24 in 1996--despite the increase in Army patrolling in response to the renewed threat.

The Government share Mr. Rowe's view that the provisions are still needed. They accept his conclusions, and urge the House to continue the Act in force for a further 12 months. Against the background of South Quay, the current Act--then a Bill--completed its parliamentary stages. The Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1996, drafted against a peacetime scene, has a lifespan of two years.

Right hon. and hon. Members will recall that, following the Provisional IRA's renewed campaign, there were calls for the Act's lifespan to be extended. The Government resisted, in the hope that sense would prevail and the ceasefire would be restored--a genuine ceasefire. They had already requested Lord Lloyd of Berwick to consider the future need for counter-terrorism legislation in the United Kingdom in the event of a lasting peace in Northern Ireland. The lifespan of two years would allow the Government to consider Lord Lloyd's recommendations for proposals for a new legislative framework.

In the event, Lord Lloyd reported in October 1996, against the background of the intensifying campaign by the Provisional IRA in Northern Ireland. He has said that, even if there were lasting peace in Northern Ireland, permanent counter-terrorism legislation would be needed to meet the threat of other kinds of terrorism, both domestic and international. He makes a series of other recommendations, all of which assume lasting peace.

The Government acknowledge the considerable contribution that Lord Lloyd makes, against the climate he was asked to assume, but as announced to the House by my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary on 20 February in a written answer to a parliamentary question, in the continuing absence of a lasting peace, the Government believe it is too early to reach a firm view on possible fundamental legislative change.

We hope sincerely that there will be a renewed and permanent cessation of violence, which would enable us to re-open Lord Lloyd's idea of a new legislative

19 Mar 1997 : Column 1015

framework for combating terrorism. Meanwhile, the Government intend to produce in due course proposals to strengthen existing controls on terrorist finances, along the lines of Lord Lloyd's helpful analysis.

The Government continue, through the talks process currently adjourned until 3 June, to seek to secure a comprehensive political settlement, which would take account of the different aspirations of the two traditions in Northern Ireland. We seek to establish political institutions that command cross-community acceptance and thus to remove all excuses for those who would pursue political change by means of violence.

With the notable exception of Sinn Fein, which has excluded itself from the talks process, representatives of all political parties successful in the elections held on 30 May last year are working with the Government and the Irish Government to help to bring about a lasting political solution. Sinn Fein knows what it must do to get to that table. It must realise that democracy imposes obligations: it is not all rights.

Now is not the time for the House to divide on an issue such as this. I urge Opposition Members to vote with the Government tonight to continue in force the provisions of the Act and in doing so to send a clear message to the terrorists: "You haven't gone away. Nor have we. You must rethink your strategy, because we will never give in to violence. By violence, you will continue to achieve nothing. You should end it now."

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