HC Deb 14 November 1967 vol 754 cc225-31
The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. George Brown)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I wish to make a statement on South Arabia.

Since my statement to the House on 7th November, the situation in South Arabia has become clearer.

In the course of talks between 7th and 10th November the officers of the South Arabian forces told the High Commissioner that they fully supported the National Liberation Front which, they said, was in effective control. These officers also said that in areas from which British forces had withdrawn the National Liberation Front was working to maintain a cease-fire.

The National Liberation Front themselves claimed at Press conferences on 8th and 10th November that they were exercising effective control and said that they wanted to enter into negotiations. They also demanded an end to violence against the civil community and called on the population to respect the persons and institutions of the foreign community.

On 11th November the National Liberation Front sent me a telegram which they later published. In this telegram they asserted their claim to be a popular authority in control and said that they had formed a delegation to negotiate with Her Majesty's Government on the transfer of political power. They asked for our agreement to open negotiations within a week. I replied immediately agreeing to open negotiations. They have now asked that these begin on or about 20th November, and I have agreed that they will be held in Geneva. My right hon. and noble Friend, Lord Shackleton, who has a close knowledge of the problems of South Arabia, will lead our delegation.

On 2nd November, I told the House that, by the middle of this month, we should fix and announce a precise date for independence and withdrawal. I also said that it might be useful to vary the date a few days one way or the other if this would help us over starting negotiations with an emerging Government.

The High Commissioner, through his talks with the South Arabian forces, is at this moment working out arrangements for the negotiations and Her Majesty's Government have, therefore, decided, in order to help this process, that South Arabia should become independent and the withdrawal of our forces be completed by 30th November.

There are important matters to be settled, and preferably before independence, but, if negotiations cannot be completed before independence, there is nothing, of course, to stop them continuing as between independent countries.

Her Majesty's Government have not had an easy road to follow in bringing South Arabia to independence. I would here like to pay tribute—indeed, I must —to the many Britons, both civilians and military, who have devoted their labours and, in many cases, to our great sorrow, given their lives for this cause. I also grieve for the large numbers of South Arabians, who have suffered death or injury. I am sure that the whole House will join me in hoping that South Arabia will enjoy a peaceful future.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I am sure that the whole House will join in gratitude to those who have made so many sacrifices in Aden in the last few months. I have never disguised from the right hon. Gentleman that, if the road is rough, that is Her Majesty's Government's responsibility very largely—

Hon. Members

Absolutely disgraceful.

Mr. Speaker

Order. None of this noise helps.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

The point today, however, is that evacuation should be completed successfully and as quickly as possible and under the timetable of the High Commissioner and the military advisors. In that, I pledge the co-operation of Her Majesty's Opposition. We shall do nothing whatever to hamper that process.

I should like to ask the right hon. Gentleman some questions. I take it that the naming of the date—which I am bound to say I would not have done myself—was on the High Commissioner's recommendation. His hon. Friend the Under-Secretary gave some very specific pledges on the subject of the three islands and said that consultation must take place with the inhabitants before they were handed over. Have those conversations taken place? If not, why not?

There is also a number of individuals in South Arabia in prison, imprisoned by the N.L.F., who have, up to now, been entitled to Her Majesty's Government's protection. Will the right hon. Gentleman do his best to see that when the negotiations take place the interests of these persons are protected?

Mr. Brown

I am much obliged. I forbear to deal with the reference to the rough road: the right hon. Gentleman has plenty to answer for there.

On the question of a successful evacuation, I have always said, in every statement which I have made to the House on this subject for a little over a year now, that our first priority was early withdrawal of our forces and our people. That remains so, and all our actions have been addressed to that end.

As to the naming of the date today, as the right hon. Gentleman well knows, there are arguments either way. The responsibility for naming it is mine, but the right hon. Gentleman may be sure that I did not take that responsibility until I had taken fully into account the advice which I received.

On the question of the islands, the consultation has taken place and I am now considering what action to take as a result.

On the question of the detainees, of whom there are a number of different classes, yes, we have this very much in mind and the right hon. Gentleman may be sure that we shall try our very hardest to see that no harm is done there, either.

Mr. James Griffiths

Does my right hon. Friend appreciate that those of us on this side, and, I believe, the majority of people in the country, greatly admire the courage and skill with which he has handled this difficult situation, which he inherited? May we be allowed to join him in expressing our sympathy to all those who lost their lives or suffered injury, and offer good wishes that South Arabia may find a dignified and peaceful place in the world?

Mr. Brown

indicated assent.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, whatever one may feel about the policy which he has conducted in Aden, the Royal Air Force in Sharjah and Bahrein is fully able and willing to get all our civilians and soldiers out, and that this is a matter in which we can take great satisfaction?

Secondly, would he not agree that there is a very great danger in separating by so long as 16 days the announcement which he made today—

Mr. Molloy

On a point of order—

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

—and the date on which the troops will actually—

Mr. Molloy

On a point of order. I am trying to follow the interchange of questions and answers between hon. Members and my right hon. Friend. May I have it explained to me on what authority the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Eldon Griffiths) put his question about what the R.A.F. will and is prepared to do?

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member should know very well that that is not a point of order.

Mr. Brownrose

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

Further to that point of order—

Mr. Speaker

Order. There is no point of order. The hon. Member's question is about to be answered, I think.

Mr. Brown

There are two points here. On the first part, the hon. Gentleman probably has his geography and the means of carrying people wrong, but he may be quite sure that, on what he is really concerned about—namely, that we will be able if, regrettably, it were needed, to get our people out—provision has been made.

On the second part of his question, relating to the date, I am sure that, for all kinds of reasons, to do with the mounting of the operation and with what other people must take into account, it was right today to say when the end of the process will be.

Mr. Colin Jackson

Can the Foreign Secretary give the House any information about the future of the oil refinery? What is the attitude of the N.L.F. towards it, bearing in mind the employment necessity for the territory and also the need of that oil in the rest of the Middle East?

Mr. Brown

I have not the slightest doubt at all that those who will succeed us there know very well that they need to take over a viable economy. They know the importance of the refinery. They have already made that clear. My hon. Friend hints that there are other people in that part of the world who also need that refinery. I therefore think that we shall be able to arrange for its continuance under proper conditions for the protection of those of our people who will stay there to help.

Mr. James Davidson

We on the Liberal benches would like to associate ourselves with the tribute paid by the Foreign Secretary to British citizens who have lost their lives in Aden. Does the right hon. Gentleman see a real chance of a stable Government in the future? Do Her Majesty's Government intend to withdraw regardless of whether a stable Government is in effective control, or do they intend to play this delicate situation entirely by ear?

Mr. Brown

I have made it plain again and again and again—I have done so today—that we intend to withdraw. I do not think that we shall be doing anybody any good at all by leaving the slightest doubt in their minds to the contrary. I see a very considerable chance of a stable Government taking over when we leave, and that is why I started what I had to say today by stating that since my statement of 7th November the situation had become clearer.

Mr. Driberg

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the new independent Government will need all the political talent it can command, but that some of the most experienced politicians, including a former Chief Minister, belong to the rival nationalist organisation? Does he see any prospect of a recon- ciliation between the N.L.F. and F.L.O.S.Y.?

Mr. Brown

This must be for the Arabs themselves to decide. One of the firm points about which I have been very determined is that I would not spoil the situation by seeming to name some Arabs as more respectable in our eyes than other Arabs, and I am sure that I ought to hold to that. They will sort it out.

Mr. Sandys

Will the right hon. Gentleman assure us that in the coming negotiations the Government will not make any promises which would commit British forces to take sides in any fighting which may break out between rival political groups and tribes in South Arabia?

Mr. Brown

I assure the right hon. Gentleman that in that respect, as in many others, I will not follow his example.

Mr. Leadbitter

Does my right hon. Friend appreciate that on this side of the House we are quite content with the very positive proposals which we have for withdrawal? Will he nevertheless bear in mind the many British nationals, without any means whatever, who are anxious for some clarity of information? Will he assure the House that British nationals without means of retiring to this country will be given every assistance?

Mr. Brown

I will sympathetically regard any such cases, but the British Government cannot take over responsibility for those who are neither our Service nor our civilian employees.

Mr. Tapsell

Does the Foreign Secretary realise that ever since the publication of the Durham Report it has been the declared policy of successive Governments in this country to bring the territories for which they are responsible not merely to independence, but to independence under the rule of law and under a democratically elected Government? Does he realise that, particularly for those who believe in the modern concept of the Commonwealth, the handling of this situation by Her Majesty's Government is a very black day in British history?

Mr. Brown

The hon. Member is entitled to his point of view, although I could draw some rather interesting comparisons between what he said and some of the things which hon. Members opposite are saying about a subject shortly to be discussed. However, I believe that when the dust has died down, not only this country, not only Arabia and the Middle East, but also hon. Members opposite, will realise that, given the situation from which we started, we have done a tremendous job in getting it sorted out.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. Mr. Thomson. Statement.