Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Mates: I hope that I made it clear that all terrorism should be denounced. There is no excuse for any terrorism whatever, and we should do all that we can to prevent it.

I may have a perspective on internment that is unusual in the House, in that I am totally opposed to it. I was in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s when internment was introduced, and I saw its consequences. As someone said, it was the best recruiting sergeant that the IRA ever had. I agree completely, however, with what the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) said: although it

2 Sept 1998 : Column 801

was wrong then, it is nevertheless part of the armoury to combat terrorism. I cannot foresee any circumstances in which I would want to introduce it--indeed, the issue came up from time to time while I was in Northern Ireland, during especially bad phases of violence, and I was always against it because I thought that it would do more harm than good--but that does not mean that we should remove the option altogether.

I sincerely hope that the Government will reconsider, with a view not to introducing internment, because there is clearly no case for it at present, but to having it available. The one development over the past four or five years that has been good and constructive is that the British and Irish Governments are becoming ever more at one in the measures that they have taken in the fight against terrorism. In the face of that growing convergence, the Government threw out the ability to introduce internment four or five short months ago. The Irish did not do the same, and that is significant.

There is no use having internment on only one side of the border: that is an absolutely empty gesture. One argument that was made in the 1970s and 1980s was that it would have been pointless for us to consider introducing internment in Northern Ireland because it was perfectly clear that, in the prevailing political climate, the Republic would never do so, so we would simply have been repeating the mistakes of the early 1970s.

To be effective, internment has to be total on both sides. It has to be done as a precise, surgical, surprise operation; otherwise, the people whom we seek to inter are not there and we are bolting the door after the horses have left. The Prime Minister was wrong today--or wrongly advised--when he said that it was a matter of judgment. The judgment concerns whether we have the ability to introduce internment in circumstances that we cannot foresee, but the fact is that, if we do not have that ability in our law, we cannot do it--unless the Government are suggesting that they can round up everybody and then come to the House to seek retrospective legislation for an action that would otherwise not be legal.

I cannot understand why the Government are deliberately choosing not to have that weapon in their armoury. I do not believe that we would use it now--I would not have considered using it after Omagh, but what if we have four, five or six more Omaghs and it becomes clear that a small nucleus of people is determined to continue the violence and that, as now, there is no public support for those people? However, that weapon would be available if circumstances arose under which it should be considered.

One reason for the failure of internment was the sympathy of the whole nationalist community for those who were interned. Many were interned wrongly and there was great public sympathy for their cause. As of today, there is no sympathy whatever for the cause of the Real IRA, or other such splinter groups, whatever they call themselves. There is simply disgust at and abhorrence for what they are doing.

If it became a question of judgment on whether to introduce internment, the decision would not be taken in the same scene. We would be dealing with a small number of people and it might be the right action to take, except

2 Sept 1998 : Column 802

that we cannot now take it. That is a silly policy and, in the light of what I have said, I hope that the Government will look at the matter again.

Mr. White: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the introduction of legislation for internment would alter the balance about which he speaks? There is no support for the terrorist in any of the communities in Northern Ireland, but the mere fact of introducing such legislation would alter the equation.

Mr. Mates: That is again a matter of judgment. I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman because, if the Government had not repealed the legislation earlier in the year, its reintroduction would not be an issue. That does not mean that a Government cannot admit that they have done something wrong and decide to put it right. I am not advocating the introduction of internment; I am saying that it is one of the weapons that we should have. The Government's true position came out in the Prime Minister's final answer, and that may have been innocently echoed by the hon. Gentleman who said that internment legislation would send the wrong message to the terrorists. I am afraid that that begs another question: what is the right message?

Mr. White: My point was that the wrong message would be sent to the republican community and not necessarily to the terrorists.

Mr. Mates: Since Good Friday, we have been in the business of sending messages; the Government need to be careful, because the problem is that all the messages are going one way. There have been firm assurances about decommissioning. Has anything been handed in--one gun or other weapon, one piece of explosive? The quid pro quo for decommissioning is the release of prisoners. Some of the worst prisoners have been rushed out of Irish gaols, although such people have not yet been released from ours. Lord Mountbatten's murderer is free. Was there any quid pro quo for that? How about 10 tonnes of Semtex in exchange for the murderer of Lord Mountbatten? No, because it is said that that would send the wrong message.

I offer a word of caution on this matter. Do the Government intend to continue in that way without bringing people up to the mark to deliver what they have promised? If they do, we shall increasingly alienate the decent majority in Northern Ireland and some people in this country who wonder why all the traffic at the moment is one way. I hope that the Government have it in mind to issue some timetables and put Sinn Fein-IRA feet to the fire over the matter. I hope that, before there are mass releases of prisoners from Northern Ireland gaols, there will be some concrete signs and not just good intentions.

The right hon. Member for Upper Bann welcomed the appointment of Mr. Martin McGuinness to the body that will look into decommissioning. Mr. McGuinness will have to change his tune because, only six short months ago, he said that not one bullet would the IRA ever give in. That was his position, but now he is part of the organisation that is looking into decommissioning. If that is a road to Damascus conversion, I welcome it.

Dr. Lynne Jones: The hon. Gentleman spoke about sending messages. Does he agree that the Good Friday agreement was a breakthrough and that it gives real hope

2 Sept 1998 : Column 803

for peace in Northern Ireland? Does he further agree that, if the Government had not abolished internment, that agreement would not have been reached?

Mr. Mates: The hon. Lady must ask the Government about that. I do not know whether that was another of the messages that were sent at the time. If it was, it was the wrong message. Of course I do not question the fact that the Good Friday agreement was good, but at the moment the only people who are keeping to the agreement are on this side. Sinn Fein-IRA have not done any of the things that they have undertaken to do. Has there been any decommissioning or any move towards it? Has anything been handed in? Has there been any reduction in punishment beatings or knee cappings? Those things are, and must be, part and parcel of bringing peace. But Sinn Fein-IRA do not call that violence; they call it community policing.

Dr. Lynne Jones: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Mates: I have already given way to the hon. Lady and I want to be brief.

I commend the Government on introducing the Bill, which I shall support, but I hope that they are listening. There is a limit to what they can expect to be given while we get nothing back in return. So far, if I may put it this way, the good guys have had precious little back for what we have given. I hope that, before the prisoners are released from Northern Ireland gaols, we shall demand and see concrete signs of the good intentions that Sinn Fein-IRA say that they have being put into practice so that the sort of weapons that set off the Omagh bomb--not the fertiliser, but the detonator, the primer and possibly a small amount of Semtex--are no longer available to those people to cause destruction. If we go on accepting their good faith, we may wreck rather than cement the Good Friday agreement.

9.30 pm

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South): I propose to be brief, as I have already made many of my points by way of intervention.

When I first heard about the proposal to recall the House and to discuss these two matters, my hackles went up, the hairs rose on the back of my neck and all the defensive mechanisms in me as a libertarian came to the fore. As time went by, I resisted the temptation of invitations from television and messages in the press and, for once, I sat down, waited, watched and listened. In doing so, I learned something and many of my prejudices evaporated.

Yet more prejudices have gone with the passage of time. The right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) debated whether the proposed clause would work with frankness and honesty, and I pay him the great compliment of saying that he got it just about right.

Internment has been replaced by a method of prosecution for membership of a list of proscribed organisations. Those proscribed organisations will disappear with time, just as many of their forebears have gone. With them disappears the necessity for this part of the Bill. I seek an assurance on that from the Home

2 Sept 1998 : Column 804

Secretary. [Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman nods. Once there are no proscribed organisations, there will be no need for this part of the Bill and it will go into the past.

When I intervened in the speech of the hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) at his invitation, I sought to show what happens when public interest immunity matters are raised. Let us consider what happens in real life in a police station. I speak with some 30 years' practice in the law. I declare my interest as a practising barrister who has been involved and is involved in such cases day by day.

A solicitor goes into the police station. Under the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1996, which the Labour party supported in opposition, the first thing that the officer has to do is give the evidence. The solicitor asks on what evidence a charge is based. The officer no doubt says that it is intelligence which he is not prepared to disclose. Then the advice is given to the client that he should, of course, answer the question. It was suggested that the solicitor would say that he should not answer the question. That would be the most stupid advice in history. It would be stupid, dishonest and dishonourable to the defendant. If the defendant is saying that he is not a member, he should say it loudly and clearly.

If the police decide to make a charge, the case then goes to court. Assuming that the Home Secretary once again gives in to my simple suggestion that solicitors be allowed to attend the interview and, so that there is no argument about it, the interview is tape-recorded--I see no reason why it should not be--there will be no argument. The court--it will be a court with a jury--will hear what was said. The jury will then decide whether that interview amounts to corroboration. If it does not, we know from the Bill that there will be no case to answer at the close of the prosecution case because the word of a single officer is not enough to secure conviction.

If, however, the officer says that the information is confidential and subject to public interest immunity, the judge will have heard the basis for that. That is how the system works. If matters arise during the trial that show that that is not so and that there is no basis for what was said, the judge will intervene. That is his continuing duty in a criminal trial in this land. There is a slight difficulty in the Diplock courts, where the judge is both judge and jury.

The judge knows what sensitive information is. If it is merely informant tittle-tattle, as is often the case, the judge will give it the weight that it deserves. If it derives from observation, interception or tapping, the matter will be left to the jury, who will not know the basis of the assertion by the police officer. It will be a matter for the jury to decide, on the evidence that they have heard, whether they are sure beyond reasonable doubt that that man or that lady is guilty.

That is a pretty good alternative to internment. The person knows that he has had a fair trial. The issue has been aired in public and a jury has decided--not a police officer, but a jury.

Next Section

IndexHome Page