Speeches, etc.

Margaret Thatcher

HC PQ [Private Notice Question: Mr Ross McWhirter (Shooting)]

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: House of Commons
Source: Hansard HC [901/1189-95]
Editorial comments: 1100-20. MT spoke at cc1193-94.
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 2220
Themes: Law & order, Terrorism
[column 1189]


Mr. Berry

(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement on the killing of Mr. Ross McWhirter.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Roy Jenkins)

The House will be fully aware of the basic facts as reported in the Press of the shooting yesterday evening of Mr. Ross McWhirter at his home in Enfield. There is at this stage no information which I can add, and I believe it would be preferable, from the point of view of the Metropolitan Police, for me not to speculate about the inquiries which they are pursuing with the utmost vigour.

Mr. McWhirter was a well-known figure, outspoken and courageous. I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in expressing our deepest sympathy for his widow and family, and our condemnation of this utterly barbaric crime.

Mr. Berry

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for those remarks and particularly for his expression of sympathy. Is he aware that I find it almost impossible to believe that I am asking a Private Notice Question about an assassination in what I thought was a peaceful North London constituency? Is he aware that we will all wish to agree with his expression of the deepest possible sympathy to Mr. McWhirter 's widow, Rosemary, in front of whom I believe this terrible crime was committed, their two sons and the other members of his family, particularly his twin brother, Norris, with whom he was so closely associated in many enterprises. All of those enterprises had a consistent theme—their attempts to help the interests of one section of the community or another that was in need of such assistance. [column 1190]

While I appreciate that he does not want to go into detail, the right hon. Gentleman will be aware that the media are already blaming the Provisional IRA for this crime. Perhaps he could refer to that. What is the Government's position about the fund that Ross McWhirter launched, which must have had something to do with this terrible crime?

May I refer the right hon. Gentleman to his own remarks in the last 48 hours? On Wednesday he said that he would not hesitate to introduce any further measures to defeat terrorism. I wonder whether the time has not come for certain measures. Is it still the right hon. Gentleman's view, as he expressed it yesterday, that the death penalty would not reduce the danger of terrorism? Unhappily, those words have been proved wrong only a few hours after he said them. I do not believe that my constituents or the majority of people in the country would agree with him.

Finally, would not the right hon. Gentleman agree that this assassination—it is no less than that—has added a new dimension of crime and terrorism to this part of the United Kingdom? Should we not all join with a new purpose in defeating it? Will the right hon. Gentleman think very carefully over his words of the last 48 hours and give the lead which I believe the whole country calls for at this moment?

Mr. Jenkins

I fully understand the deep feelings of the hon. Member, which to a large extent I think we all share on this occasion. As for the further measures, I said on moving the Second Reading of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Bill that my mind was never closed to further measures which I believed would be both effective and practical. We start to debate the detail of that Bill in the near future. I shall listen with great attention to anyone who has measures to put forward and will consider carefully with my advisers whether there are further measures that we can take.

As for the death penalty, that is clearly an issue on which there are deep feelings and I respect those who have a different point of view from mine. My view, and I believe that of the overwhelming majority of the House, is based entirely upon our different judgments of what can [column 1191]best help to prevent and reduce violence. It is not a difference between guts and softness. I have no respect for softness in present circumstances. I have no sympathy whatsoever with those who commit these bestial crimes, and if they were shot in the act I would have no sympathy with them of any sort at all.

It is entirely a question of what, on the basis of the best judgment we can make, is most likely to reduce violence in future. It is a fact that nearly all of those who have been concerned in highly responsible positions with law and order on both sides of the House, both in Northern Ireland and here, take a view which is different from that of some hon. Members and may be different from that of the public. We must always consider our view and consider whether it is right, but that view, if honestly held on the basis that I have put forward, is entitled to respect, just as is the opposite point of view.

It is important that when confronted with this sort of threat, and while we can have honest differences on how best to combat it, we should not allow those differences to endanger the nerve, judgment, calmness and lead that we can give to people to combat these acts by measures upon which we are all agreed.

Mr. Graham

As the Member for the neighbouring constituency of Edmonton, and my home being just a few hundred yards away from that of Mr. McWhirter where the shooting took place, I should like, on behalf of my constituents, to express their sense of shock and anger at the tragedy which has taken place. I met many of my constituents this morning. On their behalf I should like to be associated with the expressions of sympathy which have been so ably and eloquently expressed by the hon. Member for South-gate (Mr. Berry)

Mr. Jenkins

I thank my hon. Friend for those remarks.

Mr. Thorpe

I should like, on behalf of my colleagues, to express our utter horror at this tragedy and extend our profound sympathy to Mr. McWhirter 's widow and family.

Will the right hon. Gentleman consider whether we are sufficiently sensitive in assessing those amongst the public who stand in need of some protection? Is he [column 1192]aware that judgment may show that perhaps Mr. McWhirter was already a fairly well-known target? Will he consider whether it might be necessary to be more sensitive? I am not saying that anyone is to blame, because this is a new situation However, I believe that we should look at this aspect, because many people may be in grave risk of danger.

Mr. Jenkins

I have this thought very much in mind, as I must, in relation to the capabilities of the police which, despite substantial increases in strength recently, are necessarily limited. Clearly we must take account of the possibility that this is the beginning of a new form of attack which we have not hitherto seen, at any rate in Great Britain. I assure the House that the police will take full note of this possibility.

It would not be right for me to announce all operational plans which the police may have in hand. The House may recall that an important plan last Friday was nullified by publicity in a newspaper during the afternoon. I hope that the House will not expect me to say more.

Mr. Powell

What is the nature of extent of ministerial responsibility which either requires or permits the Home Secretary to answer a Question in this House upon an individual crime, at any rate at this stage?

Mr. Jenkins

I think that must be a matter for you, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Powell


Mr. Speaker

This is a question for my discretion.

Mr. Powell


Mr. Hugh Fraser

I appreciate that the Home Secretary does not wish to be drawn at this stage on the cause of this assassination, but will he seriously consider with his colleagues responsible for the government of Northern Ireland whether at this time it is appropriate still to be releasing from detention people over whom there is a scintilla of doubt as to whether they are members of the IRA? Will he consult his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and report back to the House whether there is a so-called truce in Northern Ireland and whether this truce is being observed by [column 1193]only one side—the British Government? Whilst this country is now imperilled, not merely in Northern Ireland but here, by what seems a new wave of IRA terrorism, would it not be wise to delay further releases from detention until the right hon. Gentleman can make a further statement on whether this was an IRA assassination?

Mr. Jenkins

I am constantly in contact with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on this and other matters. I believe that in his policy he bears fully in mind not only the need to try to secure a political settlement and abatement of violence in Northern Ireland but the possible consequences here. I shall continue to keep in touch with him on this matter.

Mrs. Thatcher

I am grateful to the Roy JenkinsHome Secretary for answering this Private Notice Question this morning. I know he will realise that we on this side of the House feel particularly deeply about this matter, because we knew Ross McWhirter well and admired him a great deal. He was one of the finest people of his generation. He was never timid or passive about his belief in liberty. He was active each and every day in protecting and preserving individual liberty. The terrorists may have killed him and others, but we are concerned that they must never conquer that indomitable spirit of unhesitating courage without which freedom would perish.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his assurance that he will look at all measures against terrorism everywhere. Everything that he can do both to deter the terrorist and to protect the law-abiding citizen will have the full support of the Opposition.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we accept what he said about the death penalty being a personal matter? I accept that it is a personal belief. I believe that those who have committed this terrible crime against humanity have forfeited their right to live. Others—there are some on the Opposition Front Bench—personally believe that that is not the right view, but many would take the view that those who commit such a crime should at least forfeit their right to live at liberty for the rest of their lives. The important thing is that we should take measures both to deter the terrorist and to [column 1194]protect the law-abiding citizen, and, above all, to beat the gunmen. I hope that those who believe in freedom will now come forward in larger numbers to show the same kind of courage as Ross McWhirter showed and for which he and his wife and family have suffered.

Mr. Jenkins

The right hon. Lady has paid a remarkable tribute to Ross McWhirter, whom I did not have the pleasure of knowing. Clearly he was a remarkable man, with whom I would not always have agreed but whom one could easily have admired. I greatly understand the way in which the right hon. Lady spoke about him. I also appreciate the general tenor of her remarks.

There is only one comment which I would add. I do not think that our attitude to the death penalty should be seen as a matter of the personal conscience of any one of us. If I thought that it was purely a question of my personal conscience, I would believe it to be entirely wrong to put this before something which would help us to conquer this horror. It is not a matter, in my view, of personal conscience. That would be to take far too self-regarding a view of the situation. We all in our different ways, respecting each other's point of view, owe the nation our judgment on how we can best protect it in these dangerous circumstances. While we can and will have arguments in this House, I believe that, as the right hon. Lady made clear by the tenor of her statement, we should try to maintain a general united front in this House against the horror of the terrorist to which we must not submit.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We must leave the matter there.

Mr. Powell

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The words which fell from you a few minutes ago may have conveyed the impression that it had been my intention to challenge your decision or responsibility in the selection of a Private Notice Question. I should like to say that that was in no way implicit in what I said. I fully accept, as should every hon. Member, your undivided responsibility for permitting an hon. Member to put a question by Private Notice. But you have equally made it clear on many occasions [column 1195]that what a Minister says or whether he says anything at all in answer to such a Question is entirely his responsibility. I hope that you will forgive me for putting on the record the fact that I was in no way challenging your ruling or your rights.

Mr. Speaker

I am obliged to the right hon. Gentleman.