Merlyn Rees condemns violence inspired by SCS (1976)

On March 1st 1976 the British government withdrew Special Category Status (SCS) for Republican and Loyalist prisoners. This decision provoked a wave of violence and property destruction in Northern Ireland, as its Secretary of State Merlyn Rees noted in the House of Commons:

“During the weekend two persons died as a result of violence (in Northern Ireland)… one was an electricity meter inspector fatally injured by a booby-trap explosion in an empty house. Eleven persons were injured. There was a great deal of hooliganism directed at deliberate disruption of life and wanton damage. Traffic was disrupted and roads blocked by hijacked vehicles. Over 80 vehicles were stolen, mainly in Belfast, and many of them, including buses, were set on fire. Bus services in the areas affected were suspended to prevent further damage.

There were over 150 bomb scares, of which the great majority were deliberate hoaxes. On Saturday a Dublin-to-Belfast train was held up by a hoax bomb and a further train was damaged by fire in a station. Government offices, schools and commercial premises were damaged by fire and churches were damaged by explosions. The brother of the Governor of Crumlin Road gaol was kidnapped and held for a time.

These senseless attacks were directed at the people of Northern Ireland. They were the ones who suffered disruption to to their lives. They will be the ones who will inevitably suffer when the cost of the considerable damage to property has to be found out of savings in money scheduled for other much-needed development in Northern Ireland. They are the ones to whom the criminals and the hooligans have to justify their actions. I should like to know how the injury of a four-year-old child will be justified by those responsible.

The security forces reacted promptly and decisively. Roads were quickly reopened, order was restored and already 19 arrests have been made. But what was the point of the violence and disruption? Terrorists claiming allegiance to both communities were responsible. There is no doubt that in many cases young people were being exploited for criminal purposes.

I understand that much of the violence is alleged to have been prompted by the Government decision to phase out from midnight last night the granting of special category status to criminals convicted of offences after that date. I must make it clear that those who murder and those who shoot, bomb and commit other crimes are criminals and will not get special treatment in future. I have explained to the House the Government’s policy and I make clear again that this policy stands. Persons convicted of offences committed after midnight last night will not be granted Special Category Status. The Government will not be blackmailed.”