HC Deb 21 April 1969 vol 782 cc32-40

3.32 p.m.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. James Callaghan)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement.

In the early hours of yesterday morning two serious attacks were made on important public utility installations in Northern Ireland. An electricity pylon was damaged by explosion and trunk water mains were blown up, seriously reducing the supply of water to many thousands of homes. Last evening the Northern Ireland Government requested the assistance of military units stationed in Northern Ireland for the specific purpose of supporting the local police in safeguarding certain key installations essential to the community.

Her Majesty's Government immediately authorised the General Officer Commanding Northern Ireland to give such assistance, and troops are today being posted to safeguard certain installations in remote areas, mainly electricity and water supply installations.

I am sure the House will join with me in condemning these outrages against the life of the community. As the House is aware, it has been intended to resume our discussions with the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland following the recent General Election there. Captain O'Neill today agreed to this, and I expect a meeting to take place at a very early date. I shall, of course, continue to keep the House informed on progress in these matters.

Mr. Maudling

This is a grave and ugly situation. We on this side of the House join the Government in condemning these outrages and support their action in meeting the requests of the Northern Ireland Government. May I ask the Home Secretary, as the position of these troops is of immense importance, could he make as clear as possible the limit of what they are supposed to do and under whose control they come in doing it?

Mr. Callaghan

When the military are employed in aid of the civil power it is the responsibility of the commander of the force to decide what force is necessary to deal with any particular situation and they remain under his control. As to their rôle, it is a passive rôle in the sense that they will be required to safeguard the installations, of which they will be in charge, and to use the minimum amount of force necessary if any attack were made on those installations.

Mr. C. Pannell

Would my right hon. Friend say now what becomes of the argument that on no account should this Government at Westminster intervene in the affairs of Northern Ireland when at five minutes to midnight, presumably, we have to mount a rescue operation of this sort? Would it not be better to bring home to Captain O'Neill the idea that he had better remove the root causes of these troubles rather than place British soldiers in a position of great difficulty, demanding a great deal of tact, and demanding all of our sympathy?

Mr. Callaghan

I remember that on the last occasion this matter was raised tributes were paid from both sides of the House and from all parties to the skill, wisdom and statesmanship that Captain O'Neill had shown. It is true that since last November a substantial programme of reform has been introduced. There is still one major outstanding problem, which I have no doubt will form the subject of the conversations that our Prime Minister will have with Captain O'Neill in the very near future.

Mr. Thorpe

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that all of us deplore the outbreaks of violence in any quarter, and indeed the Mid-Ulster by-election has shown that there are outlets for democratic expression? May I ask two questions. First, if it is thought that the presence of our force is inadequate, in preference to calling out the Ulster B Specials would he consider the possibility of reinforcements from this country? Secondly, since we are dealing primarily with a question which will only be resolved by political action, will the suggestion be put to Captain O'Neill of the possibility of calling a conference of all political parties in Ulster to see if there cannot be some agreed programme of political reform?

Mr. Callaghan

The question of the use of the police and the size of the force is a matter for the Northern Ireland Government, not for me. British troops are doing what they would be required to do in any part of the United Kingdom, namely, to maintain the security of certain installations under the General Officer Commanding, who is responsible to the appropriate constitutional authorities. As to the second part of the question, the issue that the right hon. Gentleman raises is one that can be discussed with Captain O'Neill when he comes here, as I hope he will very quickly indeed, for further conversations.

Mr. Rose

May I join the Home Secretary in deploring violence from whatever quarter it may come? Does he accept that the use of troops in khaki may well escalate this situation? Would he assure the House that these troops will not, in any event, be used against the civil rights movement? Will he also consider taking police powers from the Government of Ireland and introducing British police rather than the B Specials, who are regarded as a sectarian police force?

Mr. Callaghan

As regards the use of troops, I have made quite clear what are the very stringent limitations which have been placed upon their employment at present. There is no question of their being used actively against any element in Northern Ireland. What they will be required to do will be to repel any criminal or terrorist attack upon installations that are essential to maintain the life of the community in Northern Ireland. As to the second part of my hon. Friend's question, I do not think that it would be possible for me, even if it were appropriate, to take over the control of the police in Northern Ireland, and even less to substitute for them police from this country, without embarking on a much wider-ranging series of policy changes than that simple notion would seem to portend. Her Majesty's Government would then become responsible for a great many other issues as well.

Sir Knox Cunningham

Would the right hon. Gentleman agree that, in whatever part of the United Kingdom a civil authority requests the Armed Forces to aid it, to protect public property or indeed lives, that request is naturally granted? Would he also condemn, as I think he has, terrorism, whether it be from the I.R.A. in England in 1939, or in Ulster in the 1950s and early 1960s, or today when there are terrorist activities destroying—

Hon. Members


Sir Knox Cunningham

—property and, in a very grave situation, endangering lives?

Mr. Callaghan

It is the responsibility of the Armed Forces to respond to a request from the constitutional authorities. In this case, the Northern Ireland Government made such a request to the United Kingdom Government, which immediately responded to it. As to the use of violence, I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman will use his very great influence to ensure that neither bigotry nor extremism is allowed to tear that country in two.

Mr. George Brown

Would the Home Secretary confirm that he also takes the view that if reforms are denied long enough through all the usual and ordinary channels it is no use we in this House being naïve enough to think that people will not adopt other ways of trying to enforce those reforms? Therefore, should not we desist from criticising at that point?

Secondly, since it was so clear that with Terence O'Neill and Jack Lynch as the Prime Ministers of the two parts of Ireland we were on our way towards the only solution, which is the creation of one Ireland, will my right hon. Friend and the Government ensure that all that they do is directed towards the achievement of that end?

Mr. Callaghan

As regards the prospect of achieving reforms, I remind the House that since last November four special reforms have been introduced which were the subject of very great complaint last autumn. One remains to be done. Let me enumerate the reforms. First, there is the machinery for the investigation of grievances. The Bill to establish a Parliamentary Commissioner has been introduced. Secondly, on local authority housing, the new circular has been issued to place the scheme on a readily understood and published basis. The Londonderry Commission has been set up. A limited reform has been made of the franchise. It is here that the major criticism is made. Finally, the Northern Ireland Government have appointed a commission of inquiry under the chairmanship of Lord Cameron.

It is simply not correct to argue that it is impossible to introduce reforms in Northern Ireland and to ensure that they are carried out. This is why it is imperative that Captain O'Neill and the Prime Minister should continue their conversations to ensure that the policy of reform is continued.

My right hon. Friend is entitled, from his independent and free position, to express his own views on the question of the unity of Ireland, and he will no doubt continue to do so. But Her Majesty's Government have made clear beyond doubt time after time their position on the unity of North and South.

Mr. Chichester-Clark

Would the right hon. Gentleman recognise that there is a very strong possibility that there is a distinction between the attacks on these installations and anything to do with the so-called civil rights movement? Does he agree that in all probability the events to which he has been referring in the main today are merely a repetition of what happened in 1955 and onwards and that they are directed against the constitutional position of the country?

Mr. Callaghan

I accept what the hon. Gentleman says. It is for the police and the other forces to try to establish who are responsible for the outrages which have taken place. The whole House will unite in saying that no constitutional progress can be made against a background of violence. That must apply to all elements in Ireland. It is not for us to preach to them, but I am sure that those in Ireland who wish constitutional progress to be made recognise that it can be made only against a settled and peaceful background.

Mr. Fitt

Would my right hon. Friend agree that, in acceding to the request of the Northern Ireland Government for the use of troops, he has heard only one side of the story in Northern Ireland and that there are many other sides to it? May I say in contradiction to what has been said by one hon. Member that agitation in Northern Ireland is concerned, not with the unity of the country, but with the implementation of social justice and fundamental freedom? Would my right hon. Friend agree, as I am sure every other hon. Member would agree, that the best way to find out from all the parties involved what is happening in Northern Ireland is to have a full debate in this House so that we can know exactly where we are going and do not have to rely on the sometimes perverted versions of the Northern Ireland Government?

Mr. Callaghan

I am ready to believe that there is more than one point of view, or even two points of view, of the events in Northern Ireland. But what we were concerned with yesterday was a deliberate attack on installations which are essential to the life of the community. There could be only one version of that. One either allows these installations to be attacked with impunity or attempts to defend them. The duty of Her Majesty's Government in that matter was clear.

The question of a debate is not for me, but, at the end of my statement, I undertake, to keep the House informed on future progress because I regard this as an extremely serious matter for all of us in the United Kingdom, and especially for the people in Northern Ireland.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Does the Home Secretary realise that he has the support of a wide spectrum of political and religious opinion in his efforts to preserve order in Northern Ireland but that the continuance of this support must depend on the speedy righting of legitimate grievances which have in part given rise to, but in no way justify, the present violence?

Mr. Callaghan

A very general view has been expressed in all quarters of this House about the need for constitutional progress to continue. I am sure that that view is understood in Northern Ireland. It can be, and will be, conveyed again to the Northern Ireland Prime Minister when he pays, as he intends to do, a very early visit to this country.

Mr. Shinwell

Varying views are held about the need for social reforms in the Six Counties. We note what my right hon. Friend says about waiting for Captain O'Neill, the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland. Surely the primary concern of all of us in this House, irrespective of the views which we hold, is that we should avert civil war in the north. Surely the presence of a few British troops guarding installations which affect the life of the community can do no harm and may do a lot of good. Is not that the primary consideration?

Mr. Callaghan

My right hon. Friend has summed up, not for the first time, the situation exactly as it appears to Her Majesty's Government. Clearly, our primary aim is to avert civil war from which no one can benefit. I do not think for a moment that that is a probability. Secondly, having maintained order, parallel with that we must ensure that proper constitutional progress is made, that grievances are settled and reforms are introduced. I agree with my right hon. Friend that, if the guarding by British troops of essential installations to maintain the life of the community will help to this end, I believe that everyone will support it.

Mr. Rose

I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 9, for the purpose of discussing a matter of definite, urgent and public importance, namely, the events during the weekend in the City of Londonderry and the movement of troops to key installations in Northern Ireland". There is, in my submission, no doubt that the matter is definite. The violent scenes in Londonderry have no doubt been viewed by hon. Members, if not at first hand then on the television screens, and have been read about in the national Press. In the words of one hon. Lady Member elect, there is a state of near civil war. The Government have now announced their intentions about the movement of troops.

On the second of the prerequisites, the fact that the situation is urgent is, in my submission, reflected in the Cabinet meeting called yesterday in Northern Ireland, and in the statement of my right hon. Friend, and in Captain O'Neill's cancellation of his previous engagements for today. There has been enacted in a part of the United Kingdom over which this Parliament has ultimate control, under Section 75 of the Government of Ireland Act

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman must not make the speech which he will make if he is granted an emergency debate.

Mr. Rose

I am trying to stress the second prerequisite, namely, that this matter is urgent. We have had manifest evidence of scenes which would be unbelievable in other parts of the United Kingdom. For this reason, I am seeking a debate on a matter which has not been debated in this House for 18 months.

The third criterion—public importance—is self-evident. That violence, disorder and injury on a scale of this kind should have erupted in a United Kingdom constituency, the hon. Member for which has not sought leave to move the Adjournment of the House, is, in my submission, evidence of this third point, as also is the statement of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary with regard to the decision on troop movements, which must have important consequences for the United Kingdom as a whole.

For these reasons, Mr. Speaker, I seek your leave under Standing Order No. 9 to move the Adjournment of the House.

Mr. Speaker

Will the hon. Gentleman bring his Motion to me?

The hon. Member asks leave to move the Adjournment of the House for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that he thinks should have urgent consideration, namely, the events during the weekend in the City of Londonderry and the movement of troops to key installations in Northern Ireland. I am satisfied that the matter raised by the hon. Member is proper to be discussed under Standing Order No. 9. Has the hon. Member the leave of the House?

The leave of the House having been given

Mr. Speaker

The Motion for the Adjournment of the House will now stand over until the commencement of public business tomorrow, when a debate on the matter will take place for three hours under Standing Order No. 9, subsection (2).

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