HC Deb 06 July 1970 vol 803 cc328-34

Mr. Fitt (by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department what measures were taken by the Security Forces in the Falls area of Belfast, Northern Ireland, on Friday, 3rd July, and Saturday, 4th July, and under what powers they were taken.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Balniel)

I have been asked to reply.

After a successful search for arms in the Falls Road area, the Army came under heavy attack from grenades and firearms and a street battle developed. More forces were deployed to remove obstructions and clear the area so that action could be taken by troops against hostile fire. During this period orders were repeatedly given to clear the streets under pain of arrest. The restrictions on movement thus imposed were maintained until 5 p.m. on Saturday and reintroduced from 7 p.m. on Saturday until 9 a.m. on Sunday. No formal curfew was imposed.

Any searches carried out on Friday were in direct pursuit of persons engaged against the security forces. On Saturday searches were carried out only after production of a search certificate. Members of Her Majesty's Forces are empowered under Regulation 4 made under the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Acts (Northern Ireland). 1922–1943, to search any premises which are under suspicion of being used for purposes prejudicial to the preservation of the peace or maintenance of order. Restrictions on movement were imposed in the interests of the safety of the population as a whole and to restrict the operations of armed criminals.

Mr. Fitt

Does the Minister recognise that he has just made a most amazing statement when he said that no formal curfew was imposed? Remembering the words of his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary last Friday in this House that people would have freedom under the law, can he tell the House under what law were 10,000 people hemmed in in 50 streets, many of them old and infirm and many of whom had to go without food for 36 hours? Under what law was this situation imposed in Northern Ireland? Further, when the Army were not being subjected to attack, which was about 1 o'clock or 2 o'clock in the early hours of Saturday morning, why was it necessary to maintain for another 24 hours this unwarranted restriction on the movement of defenceless people, and why were the hon. Members who represent the constituency in this House and in Stormont prevented from gaining access to the area to see for themselves what was happening?

Lord Balniel

As I have explained, no formal curfew order was imposed under Regulation 19 of the Special Powers Acts. The restrictions on movement were imposed by the military commander as an operational measure for the safety of the community as a whole. As to the question of access by the hon. Member to the constituency concerned, if he has any specific complaint to make, I will consider the matter.

Mr. McMaster

Is my hon. Friend the Minister of State aware that the great majority of ordinary people in Northern Ireland, of every class and religion, welcome the successful searches for arms carried out during the weekend, which revealed more than 100 pistols, revolvers, automatic weapons and shotguns, and more than 21,000 rounds of ammunition and incendiary devices? Is my hon. Friend further aware that the population is appalled at the carnage and arson perpetrated by a small vicious group of terrorists who have killed nine civilians in the last week and have injured more than 400 people in the streets of Belfast?

Lord Balniel

I am sure that the great mass of the population of Northern Ireland are anxious to preserve peace and order, and that the troops, in their extremely trying and difficult work, have the support of the overwhelming mass of the population.

Mrs. Shirley Williams

While the House recognises the need to follow up any information concerning the possession of illegal arms, may I ask whether it was essential to rely on the Special Powers Acts, which are highly provocative in the situation obtaining in Northern Ireland? Secondly, may I ask whether it would have been possible to allow rather greater freedom of movement during the day to avoid hardship of the kind which has been reported following this restriction of movement? Thirdly, in view of the allegations which have been made in some quarters, despite the almost superhuman patience of the troops in the face of provocation, will an investigation be carried out into the allegations which have been made about the troops, for it is essential that no such allegations should be permitted to remain should they be false.

Lord Balniel

If any allegations about looting or the use of excessive force are referred to me, I will ensure that an investigation is undertaken. I will refer the matter to the authorities in Northern Ireland. The conditions under which the troops were operating were very grave indeed. On Friday night 15 soldiers were injured, two seriously; three civilians were killed and 57 injured.

Captain Orr

Is my hon. Friend aware that what appears to have happened is that the Army have frustrated in advance a dangerous conspiracy of armed rebellion against the Crown and that the whole House owes them a deep sense of gratitude and support?

Lord Balniel indicated assent.

Mr. Michael Foot

Does not the hon. Gentleman recognise that his statement that no curfew, whether formal or otherwise, was imposed is contradicted by most of the independent reports by most newspaper reporters who were there at the time? Does he not recognise that something which was in effect a curfew was imposed, and that it was highly provocative for the Army authorities to give the order for the search for arms in the Catholic area when no comparable search was made in the Protestant area? Does the hon. Gentleman not recognise that there is a widespread feeling in Belfast that the Government have listed their strength on one side in this dispute, and does he not also recognise that there must be an immediate statement to the House which seeks to rectify the situation?

Lord Balniel

I completely repudiate any suggestion that the military forces have acted in any way other than impartially. Having seen them, I am deeply impressed by the impartial way in which they have conducted their extremely difficult task. The hon. Gentleman and, indeed, the House must be aware that a very substantial cache of arms was found, and surely this fully justifies the search which was made. Fifty-two pistols were found, 35 rifles, six automatics, 14 shotguns, 25 lb. explosives, 20,750 rounds of ammunition and eight grenades. I think this justifies the search which was undertaken.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Does my hon. Friend agree that proceeding from the technical legal argument is the equally technical sectarian argument that whatever allegations have been made against individuals, which clearly must be thoroughly investigated, the behaviour of the vast majority of British troops in Northern Ireland in a situation of extreme provocation and danger has been impeccable?

Lord Balniel

As I have said before, I am sure that my hon. Friend is express- ing the view of the great majority of the population in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Orme

Would the hon. Gentleman not recognise that it appears to the people in Northern Ireland that the balance has now shifted heavily on to one side, in that there was shooting a while ago in the Shankill Road and that no search was made at that time? Could he say why the R.U.C. was taken in with the Army, which again was provocative to the local residents? In order to try to balance the situation before it gets completely out of hand, will he now ban the marches on 12th July as an indication that the Government are prepared to act impartially or to try to act impartially in this matter?

Lord Balniel

The banning or the redirection of marches is a matter for the Government of Northern Ireland.

Mr. Chichester-Clark

Is my hon. Friend aware that, in spite of what has been said on the other side of the House, the Shankill Road area has on occasion been searched thoroughly? Is he also aware that the great majority of the people in Northern Ireland admire very much the bravery and courage which the troops have shown throughout the whole campaign?

Lord Balniel

My hon. Friend is, as I have said before, echoing the views not only of this House but of the great majority of people in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Healey

Will the hon. Gentleman accept that the overwhelming majority of hon. Members in both parties have nothing but admiration for the humanity and discipline with which the British Army has conducted itself under extreme provocation, and that we welcome the fact that he has indicated his readiness to investigate any specific complaints of misconduct which may be made? Indeed, is it not the case, as has been reported on the wireless, that the G.O.C. has set up two centres in Belfast to which specific complaints may be made for investigation by the authorities?

Having said that, may I ask the Minister whether he will take very seriously the feeling of many of my hon. Friends that there is some danger in the present situation that the impartiality not so much of the Army but of the British Government is suspected, no doubt unjustly, by a minority in Northern Ireland? It is, therefore, most important, particularly with regard to the possession illegally of weapons, that justice should not only be done but should be seen to be dome. Is it not, therefore, of prime and urgent importance that a major effort should be made to collect in all arms in private possession, in whatever community, in Northern Ireland?

Lord Balniel

The right hon. Gentleman is correct in that two complaints centres have been established, which are manned both by the R.U.C. and the Army, to which specific allegations of complaint should be made. As the right hon. Gentleman correctly says, any implication that the Government are acting other than impartially would be unjust. I fully agree with his view that arms held by whatever section of the community should be brought in and should not be allowed to continue to be held in private hands.

Mr. Healey

Will the Minister say whether it is Her Majesty's Government's policy, either directly or through the Stormont Government, that all arms in private possession in Northern Ireland should, so far as possible, be collected by the authorities and held in a central position, because it is the circulation of very large numbers of weapons in the hands of private citizens which constitutes the major threat to law and order in Northern Ireland at the present time, and these arms are by no means held by only one section of the population?

Lord Balniel

All arms which are held illegally should be brought in and be held by the authorities.

Mr. Heffer

In view of the very serious allegations which have been made concerning a small section of the troops, particularly in some of the Irish papers, which I am sure hon. Members have read, is it not clear that there should be strict impartiality and that this House should set up a Select Committee to look into this whole question to ensure that there is impartiality and that the people of Ireland know that there is impartiality?

Lord Balniel

That is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. If it were the wish of the House he would certainly consider the point.

Mr. Pounder

Is my hon. Friend aware that the prompt and courageous action of the Army in the Falls Road area last Friday night did much to defuse a potentially dangerous situation in other parts of Belfast, that there have been grave anxieties for a long time about substantial arms caches in the Falls Road area and that the Army was fully justified in its courageous action?

Mr. McManus

Would not the Minister agree that the time chosen for the search for arms was silly and provocative? The Army knew for quite a while, or must have known, that the arms were there, and yet they chose, not the usual time of 6 o'clock in the morning, but 5 o'clock in the afternoon, when the maximum number of people were about, to go into the Falls Road to search for arms.

Will the Minister assure the House that the British Army in Ulster will not be used as a political battering ram by the Unionist Government at Stormont? To indicate to the minority in Northern Ireland that the Army is impartial, will they immediately institute searches for arms in areas known to be U.V.F. strongholds—Shankill Road and Sandy Row?

Lord Balniel

I cannot accept that the timing was mistaken. If the authorities are informed that illegal arms are held, it is their duty to go and search for them and retrieve them.