HC Deb 12 November 1969 vol 791 cc417-27
The Minister of Defence for Administration (Mr. Roy Hattersley)

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

The House will recall that in the debate on Northern Ireland on 13th October my right hon. Friends the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Defence said that the Government proposed to create within Northern Ireland a local reserve defence force. This force is the subject of a Bill which is to be presented today.

The Bill has been drafted on the established pattern of reserve forces legislation and provides the stathtory framework within which the new force can be raised. There are, therefore, a number of matters which do not fall within its scope, but about which the House will wish to be informed. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence is, therefore, publishing at the same time as the Bill is laid a White Paper which will set out the broad outline of the new force's function and constitution.

The Hunt Committee recommended that the Royal Ulster Constabulary should be relieved of all military duties and that the Ulster Special Constabulary should be replaced by two separate forces —one a police reserve, the other a military force to assist the regular Armed Forces.

The nature of the new military force will be governed by its operational task. That task will be to meet what the Hunt Committee called "armed guerilla-type attacks". This calls for a force to guard key points and installations, to carry out patrols and to establish check points and road blocks.

This force will be an integral part of the Army. It will be controlled by the Secretary of State for Defence, and will be under the command of the General Officer Commanding, Northern Ireland. Its immediate commanding officer will be a brigadier of the regular Army. The regular Army will also supply administrative and training staff.

The size of the force will be determined in the light of experience as the build-up proceeds, but will not ultimately exceed 6,000 officers and men. Of necessity, the new force will draw substantially on the Ulster Special Constabulary for its initial recruitment, but there will be a campaign to enrol recruits from all sections of the Northern Ireland community. Apart from the formal qualifications of age, residence and nationality the sole criterion for acceptance will be suitability for service in a military force. There will be a strict security vetting.

The force will be called the Ulster Defence Regiment.

The power to call it out for local emergency will be vested by the Secretary of State for Defence in an officer of the Regular Armed Forces who may, in turn, delegate that power to other officers of the Regular Forces not below the rank of major. Members of new force will be liable to be called out for service only in Northern Ireland.

Officers of the new force will be subject to military law at all times, others will be so subject when on training or on duty.

Members of the new force will be required to do one week's consecutive training, four other full days' training and 12 drills. This is, I believe, the minimum training required to produce an efficient force. In some special cases, however, the requirement may be varied within this total amount.

Members of the force will receive Regular Army emoluments for full days' training or duty in the same way as the TAVR. A non-taxable annual bounty will be paid to all members who complete the training obligation.

Although the defence of the United Kingdom is the sole responsibility of Her Majesty's Government here at Westminster, the tasks for which this new force will be raised are of the greatest importance to the Government of Northern Ireland. We therefore envisage that the G.O.C., Northern Ireland, will have the fullest possible consultation with the Government of Northern Ireland about the use of this force. This, of course, in no way diminishes the powers and responsibilities of the General Officer Commanding.

The success of this force is vitally important to the people of Northern Ireland. It must be representative of the community as a whole. Recruits must come forward from all sections. We are confident that they will. The Government will do all in their power to ensure the success of the regiment.

Mr. Rippon

We on this side welcome the statement made by the hon. Gentleman. It is very much in line with the views which we expressed in the debate on Northern Ireland on 13th October, particularly in regard to the size and shape of the force. We particularly welcome the proposed name, which, I think, should prove popular, and the emphasis which is rightly placed on the strict security vetting. Obviously, we must study the White Paper and the Bill before we reach final conclusions.

Can the Minister tell us when the Second Reading debate is likely to take place and when it is expected that this new force will be in a position to exercise an effective role?

Mr. Hattersley

The date of the Second Reading debate is, of course, a matter for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, but it is certainly my hope that it will occur in the immediate future and my suspicion that it will take place on Wednesday of next week.

As to the effective date for the force, we hope to begin recruiting on the first day of next year and we hope that the force will be an effective instrument by April next year, with the four months or so intervening being used to make a sensible and practical transitional period between the old and the new forces.

Mr. McNamara

Is my hon. Friend aware that there are nine counties in Ulster, not six, and, therefore, that this name is something of a misnomer? It would have been far better to have called it the Northern Ireland Defence Force. Is he aware that many people who welcomed the Hunt Report welcome the statement which has been made and the details, particularly in view of conflicting reports about who would be recruited into the force?

Mr. Hattersley

I am grateful for the second part of that question. As to the first part, I hope very much that all sections, both in this House and in Northern Ireland, will judge the force by its characteristics and constitution rather than by one word in its name. This force is an integral part of the British Army. It is the practice, when raising new regiments of the British Army, to incorporate names which have been used in the past and the word "Ulster" has played a distinctive part in British Army history.

Mr. Thorpe

Is the Minister aware that there will be a general welcome for the fact that the military and civilian duties will be quite separate and that many members of the R.U.C. themselves welcome this?

May I ask whether the hon. Gentleman thinks that saying straight away that a substantial majority of this force is to be recruited from former B Specials is likely to increase the chances of general acceptance in Ulster?

Secondly, why has the hon. Gentleman rejected the recommendation of the Hunt Report that this body should not exceed 4,000 men? We are now to have a ceiling of 6,000. To what pressures was he subjected which led him to reach this figure and to reject what the Hunt Committee recommended?

Thirdly, in so far as this body will obviously be armed, will the arms be kept in a central garrison and no longer by people in their private homes?

Mr. Hattersley

The right hon. Gentleman has asked two questions of crucial importance. First, on the recruitment of substantial numbers of B Specials, I said that for two reasons. The first is the necessity—and I used the word in my statement that if the force is to become viable in the early months of next year the members of the B Specials must be incorporated in the force. The second reason is the fact that, despite the opinion of the House about individual members of the Specials, the force is composed of a majority of men who have given good and honourable service to Northern Ireland. That in no way comments on my attitude towards a minority of that force. The majority are appropriate of membership of the new regiment.

The ceiling of 6,000 is a matter of calculation based on the military advice available to my right hon. Friend. The position is that if this force were needed for call out over a long period to man all the points which might be necessary for protection one would need to have a force of this size. But I emphasise that this is essentially a ceiling and whether that ceiling is or is not achieved will be determined by the conditions which operate in Northern Ireland between January and April next year.

The right hon. Gentleman asked an equally important question about keeping arms at home. It will certainly be the general practice for arms to be stored centrally, but there must be with this force an occasional exception to that rule and that exception must apply when obligations on this force to respond immediately to emergencies could not be met if the arms were stored in a central depot and would, therefore, take some time to collect.

This case will be an exception and, in practice, would be most likely to occur in rural areas. My hon. Friends who may be concerned about this provision will, I hope, be reassured to know that the Bill will make provision that on occasions when arms are kept at home all members of the force will be subject to military law.

Miss Devlin

Does my hon. Friend really expect me, or any other hon. Member, or anyone in Northern Ireland. to accept one solitary word of the whitewash and eyewash he has produced for the people of Northern Ireland? [HoN. MEMBERS: "Oh.") I am asking a question and I am asking it importantly and in all sincerity. Am I, as a Member of Parliament, expected to go back to my constituents and to tell them that this is what has been offered? If we are to have a new force with a ceiling of 6,000 men and if in the beginning we arc to rely on the Ulster Special Constabulary, there are only 8.000 of those men and we shall have the whole Ulster Special Constabulary in the new force by April.

Hon. Members


Miss Devlin

We shall have the whole of the Ulster Special Constabulary in that force. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. The House must allow the Chair to keep order.

Miss Devlin

If there are not to be, as the Hunt Committee recommended, the strict qualifications relating to physical ability, mental ability, educational qualifications and medical fitness, how are the rest of us going to get into—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Questions must be reasonably brief.

Miss Devlin

I will sum up my question reasonably briefly, Mr. Speaker. What we are being offered, in my opinion, is the B Specials under another name. Can the hon. Gentleman give me one concrete statement to show that this is not the Ulster Special Constabulary under the guise of the British Army?

Mr. Hattersley

The question whether the hon. Lady recommends it to her constituents is a matter for her conscience and judgment. I say two things to her which I hope will help her to do so. First, this force differs in at least seven major and fundamental ways from the Special Constabulary, not the least of which is that it is under the control of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and is under the practical control of officers of the British Army.

Secondly, my statement included at least three pleas, and I make a fourth now, that all members of the Northern Ireland community should join this force. I believe—I say this to the hon. Lady with the greatest respect—tthat the greatest service she can render, in regard to this force, to her constituency and to Northern Ireland as a whole, is to encourage those responsible people who supported her to support and join this force.

Captain Orr

Is the Minister aware that, despite what the hon. Lady has said, the formation of the new Ulster Defence Regiment will be welcomed by the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland of all shades of religious and political opinion and that we wish the new force well? Will he answer one question about the interim period? As I understood, it is to be from January to April. I assume that arrangements have been made so that the duties of the Special Constabulary will be carried out until the new force is precisely complete.

Mr. Hattersley

Arrangements are being made for a suitable and satisfactory transitional period. The hon. and gallant Gentleman will understand that, as a result of a statement being made in the Stormont today and of a Bill being presented in that place, there are two transitions. One is to accommodate the new military force which I have announced. The other is to accommodate the new civil police auxiliary which will be set up during the same period.

Mr. Simon Mahon

Is my hon. Friend aware that his statement about the storage of arms in Northern Ireland is bound to cause great concern, both here and in Northern Ireland? If this force is to be in any way a success, it will have to consist of people from every section of the community in Northern Ireland. What representations has my hon. Friend made to the influential persons in Northern Ireland who could guarantee the full co-operation of all sections of the community?

Mr. Hattersley

I think that it would have been inappropriate to have made formal representations to influential persons before I made a formal statement to the House. The influential persons to whom my hon. Friend refers, who are experienced and responsible as well as influential, will, I am sure, do their best to make this force a genuinely representative one. I share and echo my hon. Friend's view that this is an essential factor.

I repeat that the keeping of arms at home will apply to a small number of the force only. It will apply because operational requirements so dictate. It will apply with the approval and permission of officers of the British Army. I believe that those safeguards, combined as they will be with the provision for military discipline while such a situation obtains, ought to be adequate reassurance to people who are concerned about it.

Mr. Chichester-Clark

Does the Minister appreciate that anybody knowing the terrain in question will realise that, because of the need for speedy action, the central storage of arms is not possible in every case? Will he say something about the age limit? Will there be some flexibility about the age limit, at any rate in the initial stages?

Mr. Hattersley

There will be an initial flexibility. The flexibility will be spelt out in some detail in the White Paper which will soon be available. I emphasise that as the force builds up and as it takes on new recruits we must recruit men who are physically capable of performing the essentially military role which it must occupy.

Mr. Heifer

Will my hon. Friend accept that there is a great deal of uneasiness amongst hon. Members on this side, because it would appear as if to a large extent the new force is really the old force under a new name? [HoN. MEMBERS: "Oh."] That is my opinion. On that basis, does my hon. Friend recognise that many of us believe that we must go, not back to square one, but beyond? Therefore, will he reconsider the whole question of naming the force "Ulster Defence Regiment" because that raises the question: defence against whom? Is it defence against Southern Ireland, or is it an internal defence force?

Mr. Hattersley

If my hon. Friend genuinely believes that this is the Special Constabulary by another name, it must be because of the inadequacies of my statement. When he reads the White Paper, as I am sure he will, he will find that the shortcomings of my statement are redressed in the White Paper and he will not, I think, draw that conclusion.

As to the name, I can only repeat that it would be absurd to judge the nature of this force by its title alone. The force must be judged by its composition and its constitution, which are very different indeed from those of the Ulster Special Constabulary.

Mr. Henry Clark

Is the Minister of Defence aware that the bulk of the people in Northern Ireland will welcome his statement, but that many will regret the passing of the Ulster Special Constabulary, which has provided a very real measure of defence for those living in the countryside, particularly for women? We will welcome the new force and we shall look forward to its providing a similar and adequate defence force.

Equally, we welcome the fact that the Army is assuming a role in the defence of one of the United Kingdom's land frontiers for the first time and removing the very heavy burden that the police in Northern Ireland have borne in the past.

When the Minister works out the details of the new force, will he remember that the risk of arms being stored in homes must be balanced against the very real risk of arms stored in arsenals, which immediately provide a target for I.R.A. attack, as the history of the last 50 years shows us?

Mr. Speaker

Order. Long questions are unfair to other hon. Members.

Mr. Hattersley

Though I have done what I regard as my duty in defending the reputation of the Ulster Special Constabulary as a whole, I do not think that I want my defence to be translated into adulation. I want to carry the best of that force over to this new regiment. I certainly want a regiment which in 10 years' time does not result in my hon. Friends making the serious accusations against it which they can now make against the Special Constabulary.

Mr. John Mendelson

As to the central storing of arms, is my hon. Friend aware that in the period shortly after the recent disturbances, competent British military opinion on the spot, as my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary must well know, was very much concerned that the keeping of arms in private homes will be one of the main dangers that might discredit the future military force?

Therefore, will my hon. Friend ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence to have a further look at this question in consultation with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, so that no one shall run away with the idea that it is unimportant that people should have a gun ready every time they think that something is happening which might not be happening at all?

Mr. Hattersley

I think my hon. Friend is labouring under something of a misapprehension in that his question implied that since security in Northern Ireland had been the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Defence guns had not been kept in homes in Northern Ireland. What happens in Northern Ireland now is exactly what will continue to happen. The keeping of guns on private property by members of the Special Constabulary is not now general or generally acceptable, but in key areas where it is necessary to keep arms and ammunition at home, they are there and they have been there, with the approval of the G.O.C. It is exactly that criterion which has been working successfully since August and which will be continued.

Mr. McMaster

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the creation of this force, contrary to what some hon. Gentlemen opposite have said, will be much welcomed by all responsible people in Northern Ireland and that it will be their hope that every section of the community will be represented? What liaison, in an armed insurrection, will there be between this force and its commanding officers and the police? In a riot, will this force be used to assist the police when there is armed insurrection in the streets?

Mr. Hattersley

No, Sir. I make it very clear at once that it is the intention, and the proposed task and role, of the force that it should not be used on riot control. Indeed, the object of the Hunt Committee's recommendations in so far as they affect military force were to distinguish the civil police from the military function. The force about which I have been speaking is essentially intended to carry out a military task. It is certainly the intention of none of us that it should be used on riot control duties.

Mr. Hogg

Will the hon. Gentleman bear in mind that the public relations and, therefore, the success of this force —to which I certainly wish all success —will be a continuing exercise and is not simply a matter of first impression? Now that the House has been told—I am sure that it was right that it should be told first—about these proposals, will the hon. Gentleman bear in mind that those responsible quarters to which some hon. Gentlemen below the Gangway opposite have referred will probably wish to explore the intentions of Her Majesty's Government in this matter? Will the hon. Gentleman ensure that they are kept informed and are helped as far as they require?

Mr. Hattersley

I am grateful for the right hon. and learned Gentlemen's suggestion. I will make myself available to do what in that matter can be done. It is certainly an important task. The right hon. and learned Gentleman will understand exactly when I say that some of the things that I have heard this afternoon have not encouraged me to believe that it will be easy.