HC Deb 01 March 1955 vol 537 cc2022-8

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

10.41 p.m.

Mr. Alan McKibbin (Belfast, East)

The news that the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers was one of the units which the War Office has decided to disband in the course of the next few years was received with distress in Northern Ireland. While I realise the need for economy and for cutting down the Army as much as possible with due regard to our commitments, I ask to have the decision to disband this battalion rescinded for several reasons.

The first is because conditions in Northern Ireland are different, as far as the Army is concerned, from those in England, Scotland and Wales, where there is National Service. In Northern Ireland, service is voluntary. This is no fault of ours, because the Ulster Government asked for National Service but the Government at Westminster thought otherwise.

Although we have not got National Service I would not like it to be thought that Ulster is not playing her full part in defence and would not be prepared to fight alongside Great Britain if another war broke out. Because, in addition to finding recruits for three Regular battalions—the Royal Irish Fusiliers, the Royal Irish Rifles and the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers—we have an excel- lent Territorial Army consisting of the North Irish Horse Armoured Car Regiment, the Antrim Coast Artillery Regiment, a field artillery regiment, an infantry group of the three infantry regiments, and also a contingent Ack-Ack artillery which, as my hon. Friend knows, is at present in the course of reconstruction.

In addition, we have got an Army Cadet Force with units all over Ulster, the objects of which are to train boys between the ages of 14 and 18 years of age to be good citizens and good soldiers if they join the Regular Army or the Territorial Army when their course is finished. I am glad to know that many of them do this. I will not mention the Navy or the Air Force at the moment because we are dealing with the Army.

My second reason is that of expenditure. I am asking that a small proportion of the money which would be spent on conscription in Northern Ireland if there were National Service should be used to maintain this 2nd Battalion, and thus encourage voluntary recruiting. In this connection, I have read the statement from the Earl of Norbury, who served in the Inniskillings. He said that at one period after the last war this regiment had the highest recruiting figures of any unit of the Army. The 1st Battalion is in Kenya, and the 2nd Battalion is in Cyprus, and the fact that both battalions are overseas is not conducive to recruiting.

From previous experience, it seems that if the 2nd battalion had a few years of service at home it could be able to recruit up to its standard. Furthermore, there is an unemployment problem in Northern Ireland, and I understand that there are several Regular battalions due to come back to the United Kingdom on home service. If it could be found possible for a number of these to be stationed in Northern Ireland their presence would, indirectly at least, give a considerable amount of employment.

My third reason is that recruits for these two battalions would join for the sake of adventureand for a love of the Army, and they would be much more likely to sign on for more than three years of service. As stated in the White Paper, Cmd. 9395, it is essential that enough men should be persuaded to do this to provide the future N.C.O.s and tradesmen for the Army.

My fourth reason is that, as the senior Northern Ireland regiment, the Inniskillings merit special consideration for the retention of this 2nd battalion. It has had associations with Ulster since 1688, and it won its first battle honour in 1690—a date of particular interest to all Irishmen.

There are branches of the Inniskilling Old Comrades'Association in London, Belfast, Dublin and Omagh, and all these branches are prospective recruiting centres; and, in this connection, I received a letter this afternoon from Dublin, which I should like to read at least in part. It is from the Dublin branch of the Association, and is headed: Disbandment of 2nd Battalion and it reads: We feel strongly about the above. Ireland may be divided on many things, but in sport and war, no. As Irishmen we may have a fight or a grouse against England, but that is our business; we will not allow anyone else to do so, and if another war comes, we are in it beside you as we proved in the last two. But if you want us, then leave us something to hang on to. We are justly proud of our 2nd Battalion, its traditions and battle honours, and to our kith and kin it is the only Battalion left to join up with. At the annual conference of the Northern Ireland area of the British Legion, on 2nd February, there were delegates in Belfast from 110 men's branches and there were delegates from Dublin. Sir Norman Stronge, President of the Inniskilling Association, and Speaker of the Northern Ireland House of Commons, proposed a resolution, which was passed unanimously, asking the War Office to rescind its decision to disband this 2nd battalion. Many other public bodies have passed similar resolutions, including the Enniskillen Borough Council, and its retention is most strongly supported by the Northern Ireland Government, and by all the Ulster Unionist Members of this House.

I have seen a letter from the Earl of Bathurst, intimating that he proposes to raise the matter in another place, and I hope that the War Office will accede to all these requests. The War Office should give favourable consideration to the retention of this fine battalion, the record of which has added lustre to the pages of British military history. In the "Belfast Telegraph" it has been stated that our efforts are in the nature of a rearguard action, but I would like to point this out to my hon. Friend, that the motto of the Inniskillings is, "Nee Aspera Terrent." which means, "By Difficulties Undaunted."

10.50 p.m.

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

It might be useful if I were to recall the circumstances in which it was decided, in 1952, to raise eight new second battalions. In 1950, hostilities had begun in Korea, and it had become a matter of urgency to increase the Regular Army without delay. National Service was lengthened from eighteen months to two years, Regular Army reservists were recalled, and Regulars were retained with the Colours. In the winter of 1951–52 China entered the Korean War, and additional problems faced us in Persia and Egypt.

Other special measures were accordingly taken; such, for example, as the reduction in the age of call-up to eighteen years. At the same time, strenuous efforts were made to comb the Army's administrative tail, with the result that we were able to make 10,000 additional men available for teeth arms.

Those were the circumstances in which it was possible to raise the eight new second battalions. Without them it would have been impossible to meet our overseas commitments. At that time we had almost no reserves in this country. Today the situation for the Army is very much easier for a number of reasons. Redeployment of our forces in the Middle East, the reduction of our forces in Korea, the withdrawal of the garrison from Trieste, all mean that we can reduce the active army to the minimum which is required to enable us to fulfil our commitments in Europe and to meet our considerably reduced commitments elsewhere; and, finally, to provide a strategic reserve.

In those changed circumstances, and especially since the rundown in manpower which has resulted from the abandonment of the special measures to which I have referred, it has been decided that we would not be justified in retaining any of the eight second battalions which it was decided to raise in 1952.

Let me now try to deal with some of the specific points raised by my hon. Friend. I would say, first, that we have the greatest sympathy for his point of view, and for the point of view of all those who are reluctant to see the 2nd Inniskillings disbanded. My hon. Friend suggests, if I understand him aright, that as service in Northern Ireland is voluntary, namely, there is no National Service, the money not expended on National Service could be used towards the cost of maintaining this 2nd battalion; but as I have already indicated, the decision to disband these eight battalions was taken not on financial grounds but on operational and manpower grounds.

In any case, even if that were not so, it would not be right where economies have been effected to sub-divide the funds saved for the exclusive use of any one part of the United Kingdom. Where a saving results from economies effected in one part of the country, the benefit should be spread over the whole country.

Secondly, my hon. Friend suggested that, as all the recruits to the 2nd Inniskillings would be Regulars, that was another reason for retaining this battalion, because—and here he is quite right—we need all the Regulars we can get. But the trouble here is that the battalion in question is not composed entirely of Regulars. About half of it is composed of National Service men. Therefore, if it were to be kept as an exclusively Regular battalion we should not be able to maintain it even at half strength for operational purposes. In other words, it would have to be a home service unit which could not play its part overseas, and that, I am sure, would not be welcome to the battalion, nor, indeed, would it justify the expenditure of the public funds involved.

Thirdly, my hon. Friend mentioned the long historical association which the regiment has had with Ulster. He may rest assured that that glorious tradition is fully appreciated, and that the regiment has gallantly upheld that tradition. But, even so, it isnot possible for us to make an exception in favour of any one battalion out of the eight. It must be remembered that the other seven battalions involved also have long and glorious traditions.

I would make one point, though this may seem but cold comfort, and that is that the disbandment in question will enable us to increase the Regular cadres of the three other infantry battalions which are also closely associated with Northern Ireland—the 1st Battalion the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, the 1st Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles and the 1st Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers—so that they will benefit from the disappearance of the 2nd Inniskillings.

Finally, I wish to say once more how sorry we are to have to accept the decision to disband this fine battalion. The rapidity with which it reached its present high state of operational efficiency, its subsequent service in the Canal Zone and its service at the present time in Cyprus reflect the greatest credit on all concerned. I very much hope that the officers and men of this battalion, who served so well with it, will in future give no less valuable service with other infantry battalions from Ulster.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Eleven o'clock