HC Deb 03 November 1954 vol 532 cc563-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Wills.]

12.50 a.m.

Mr. William Teeling (Brighton, Pavilion)

I, too, apologise for keeping the House for a little longer. I am trying to deal with the question of Irish-born people in the Armed Forces, especially in the Army. Having already obtained a categorical reply from the Navy and the Air Force, both of which say that there is no Department or part of those Services into which an Irishman cannot enter, I want it to be made quite clear that that is also the case in the Army.

I raise this matter because of a case which was brought to my notice in my constituency. As a result of it, I have heard of other cases. It seems that although it may be understood at the War Office and in the House that there is nothing to prevent a man born in Southern Ireland from entering any part of the Army, that is not always understood in the Army itself.

This was the case of a boy, a constituent of mine, who had left Southern Ireland and come to this country when aged four. He later sought to join the Army voluntarily, before his time for National Service. Both his father and mother served in the British Forces during the War. This boy was particularly anxious to get into the Army and into the cipher section. This is part of the letter which I received from his parents: He has tried to get a training in cipher and had set his heart on it, but he has been told all along that because he was born in Southern Ireland he would not be accepted. In fact, only last week"— this was last July— a sergeant from the cipher squad told him that they had made it a rule that people born in Southern Ireland would not be accepted for cipher, no matter what qualifications they had. My son has had various interviews with his C.O. who always said he was awaiting definite news from the P.S.O. Now apparently he has had the news because I have had a letter today saying that he is definitely turned down. I took the matter up with the War Office just before the House rose for the Summer Recess. In August, it was cleared and this boy was allowed to take up these duties. I understand that he has been very satisfactory.

I then had another letter from a total stranger saying that his son seemed to be in an exactly similar predicament and continuing: He had been selected for a cipher course by the P.S.O. of his unit when suddenly, two days after he had started the course, orders came from the War Office that he was not to continue it as he was of Irish parentage. I wrote to his C.O. giving him particulars about the family record and my son was reinstated within a fortnight. I shall be very interested to know the outcome of the case of your constituent. In my case it appears that the P.S.O. who originally posted him had not heard of any regulations about the non-acceptability for cipher work of National Service men of Irish origin. It appears from my son's experience that the prohibition is not absolute. This being so, I feel very strongly that inquiries into the boy's background should be initiated by the authorities before he is rejected. I am not aware of any such inquiries having been made in my son's case; in fact, if I had not taken the initiative he would have continued to bear the slur on his integrity implied by his rejection. If possible, I should like that point cleared up by the War Office. If any man born in Southern Ireland can enter this part of the Army or any other part of it, then I think that should be made clear to everybody concerned in the Army. If there is any doubt at all about whether it is wise or suitable, however, then I do not think any Irishman would disagree with the point of view that each case should be considered separately. I think it is wrong to make a general rule other than that anybody born outside Great Britain should undergo some form of screening for special jobs and nobody could object to that. But just to be told that because one was born in Dublin, Belfast, Paris, Calcutta, or wherever it might be, one cannot go in for the particular thing that one wanted seems to be rather unfair.

That is why I should like to make this plea to the War Office. I gather from the Navy and the Air Force that there is no need to make a plea in their case, and I hope there is no need from the War Office's point of view. After all, Ireland and England have always kept very closely together from the military point of view. In the last war our best men in the Army, Navy and Air Force came very largely from Ireland. I believe we had more people from Southern Ireland in the last war than in the first, and if ever there is another war I think it will be very necessary that we get a considerable number from Southern Ireland again.

Not only do we have generals from all over Ireland—Field Marshal Earl Alexander and Field Marshal Viscount Montgomery at the top, and Sir John Dill—but we have the rank and file of the Irish Guards and many other regiments coming from Ireland. In fact, I do not know what we would do without them. Therefore, I hope the War Office will make it clear to everyone concerned that there is no slur on having been born in Ireland, and that if screening is necessary that will be done afterwards and there will not be a general rule that all Irish-born subjects are ipso facto under suspicion.

12.56 a.m.

Mr. E. M. Cooper-Key (Hastings)

I am very surprised to learn that men in Southern Ireland should need a reminder that their services can be utilised in this country. I had the honour during the last war of serving with an Irish Regiment of which the personnel were approximately 60 per cent. from Southern Ireland, and I understand that the intake today is maintained in the same scale. I remember that in the last war, when troops went back to Ireland they went back in plain clothes, and there were no cases of any men not returning for duty. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for War will emphasise the need, and the great feelings we have had in the past, for this strong recruitment in Southern Ireland to our Forces in this country.

12.57 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for War (Mr. Fitzroy Maclean)

May I, first of all, say how grateful I am to my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Teeling) for providing us with an opportunity of discussing this important subject. I think it would perhaps help to clear up any misapprehensions that may exist on this subject if I begin by stating the general principles which obtain in regard to citizens of the Irish Republic serving in the British Army.

Section 95 of the Army Act makes special provision in regard to aliens serving in the British Army. But by virtue of the Ireland Act, 1949, section 2, a citizen of the Republic of Ireland is not an alien for the purpose of this Section. From this it follows that for the purposes of the Army Act, a citizen of the Republic of Ireland is not an alien, and, in fact, citizens of that Republic serve in the British Army on exactly the same terms as citizens of the United Kingdom.

There is certain work in the Army of a secret nature which can only be entrusted to men and women in whom the highest confidence can be placed. No one born in Southern Ireland is excluded from consideration for these posts by reason of his birth. There is no regulation and no directive issued by the War Office or by any subordinate command which lays down that they should be excluded. If a question of security arises, each case is judged on its merits, and Southern Irish nationality or parentage is not, in itself, a factor which influences the decision one way or the other.

It appears that the signalman referred to by my hon. Friend was, in the first place, wrongly advised on this question by his troop-sergeant, who was not fully conversant with the relevant Sections either of the Army Act or of the Ireland Act, 1949. As a result of this, the signalman did not make a formal application for training as an Operator (Keyboard and Cypher), which was what he wanted to be. When his case, through my hon. Friend, was subsequently brought to the attention of higher authority he was accepted, and has now duly completed his training.

It is always possible that N.C.O.s, and even officers, may not be fully informed on individual points of policy. That is something which may always happen; but steps are being taken to ensure that the regulations on this point are in future as widely known and understood as possible. I can give the House an assurance that these regulations are, and will continue to be, observed not only in the letter but also in the spirit. If hon. Members will bring to my notice individual cases where there seems to have been a breach of these regulations I shall be very glad to look into them.

While we are discussing this subject, I should like to say how glad the British Army is to receive recruits from Southern Ireland. The Irish—and here I would not venture to draw a distinction between North and South—have always been famous for their fighting qualities. When it comes to a fight, the honours are fairly even between the two. Certainly the tradition of Irishmen serving in our Army is very old and glorious. I hope that it will continue and flourish for many years. Hon. Members may be sure that my right hon. Friend will do everything in his power to encourage the connection and nothing whatever to discourage it.

Adjourned accordingly at Four Minutes past One o'Clock.

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