HC Deb 08 February 1971 vol 811 cc34-7

Mr. Bob Brown (by Private Notice)asked the Minister of State for Defence if he will make a statement about the death of Gunner Curtis in Northern Ireland.

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Ian Gilmour)

At 1 a.m. on Saturday 6th February a military detachment came under fire from an automatic weapon sited at the junction of Lepper Street and New Lodge Road. Five soldiers were hit, one of whom, Gunner Curtis, was killed. I wish to take this opportunity of offering my sincerest condolences to the wife and other relatives of Gunner Curtis.

Mr. Brown

Whilst naturally associating myself with the Minister's expression of sympathy to the widow and to this young soldier's parents, I should like to ask two questions. First, why was this grief-stricken young widow flown from Germany to Heathrow and then put on an overnight train to Newcastle, instead of being flown direct from Germany to Newcastle, where there is a perfectly good airport? Second, why has not this boy's body been brought home before now? Does not the Minister think that it is adding to the grief of the widow and the parents of this boy by delaying the return of his body to Newcastle? Will he give the House an assurance that the body will be brought home today?

Mr. Gilmour

As to the first part of that question, presumably it was thought more convenient as the plane was flying back to London, but I regret any inconvenience that was caused. On the second part, whether there should be a military funeral, or whether the body should be flown home to Newcastle is entirely a matter for the family and we shall respect their wishes.

Mr. Chichester-Clark

While associating myself with the sympathy expressed by my hon. Friend and the hon. Member to the family of this young boy, and paying tribute to the courage of the troops in this difficult situation, may I ask my hon. Friend whether he is aware of the fact, which might be better known in this country, that groups of I.R.A. men are now known to be paying sums of between 15s. and £3 to use small children to go out and pelt troops with missiles, while they shelter behind the children in doorways, sometimes armed with automatic weapons?

Mr. Gilmour

I am not aware of any economic connection between the I.R.A. and small children, but the House will be aware that small children have been involved in disturbances over the last few days. I am sure the House will regret this fact. We are also well aware that there are extremists who are fomenting these disturbances.

Mr. Edward Short

Perhaps the Minister will allow me to associate myself with the expressions of sympathy to this young man's widow who is my constituent. Is the Minister aware that there is a growing feeling of unease among the public about the situation in Northern Ireland? Our young soldiers often have to stand and take it, and it is difficult to see how it can be otherwise if their presence is not to become entirely oppressive. Has not the time come when the role and deployment of our troops in Northern Ireland ought to be reviewed, and has not the time come also for a radical new initiative to solve the whole Irish problem?

Mr. Gilmour

Nobody in this House is happy with the present situation in Northern Ireland. Every hon. Member regrets the disturbances that have taken place. The deployment of troops is continuously under review. I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman intended to criticise the present deployment of the Army, but we of course keep this matter under review.

As to whether there should be a reappraisal politically, that is not a matter for me, but I am sure the House is concerned at the moment that these disturbances should be stamped out.

Captain Orr

Is my hon. Friend aware that everybody in Ulster joins with the two hon. Gentlemen opposite in the sympathy expressed to the relatives of this gallant young soldier, but that, in our view, by far the best method of bringing this unpleasant business to an end is to see that the perpetrators of these outrages are speedily brought to justice by every possible means open to us, even, if necessary, the use of the power of internment.

Mr. Gilmour

My hon. and gallant Friend will be aware that political measures to be taken by the Northern Ireland Government are not a matter for me.

Mr. Fordrose

Mr. Bob Brown

On a point of order. The second reply to my question was completely unsatisfactory and unless I can have an assurance from the Minister that this boy's body will be brought home forthwith, I will have to seek to raise this matter on the Adjournment—

Mr. Gilmour rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member must make up his mind. Either he is seeking to raise this matter on the Adjournment or he is not. I will allow the Minister to answer that.

Mr. Gilmour

Further to that point of order. I made it clear that this is a matter for the family to decide and not for the hon. Gentleman or me—

Mr. Brown

They have decided.

Mr. Gilmour

—and if the family decide that they wish the body to be flown home, of course it will be flown home.

Mr. George Thomson

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that I understand from my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, West (Mr. Bob Brown) that the family have decided that they would wish the body flown home, and that, in those circumstances, we should be grateful for the Minister's assurance that this will be done, that the family's wishes will be met, as he says is his aim, with the greatest sense of urgency?

May I associate myself with the expressions of sympathy which have been made? Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the whole House will deplore this new wave of fanaticism which our Servicemen are facing in Northern Ireland and will, in particular, treat with the contempt it deserves the attempt to use children in the firing line in these activities? Is he aware that the Government will have the support of the House and that our Servicemen will have the support of the House in restoring the possibility of peaceful change in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Gilmour

On the first part of the right hon. Gentleman's question, I think that I have made it quite clear that if the family wish the body to be flown home this will be done forthwith. As to the rest of the right hon. Gentleman's question, I am grateful to him for what he says, and I am of course in full agreement with what he says.

Mr. Pounder

Like all those who have spoken, may I also offer my expression of sympathy, not only to the relatives of Gunner Curtis but to those soldiers injured in recent days? The Army conduct in Belfast in very difficult circumstances has been one of great fortitude. On the point which the Minister made in answer to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Down, South (Captain Orr), if the security forces in Northern Ireland seek permission for extra powers or extra reinforcements, can my hon. Friend assure us that these will certainly be made available?

Mr. Gilmour

My hon. Friend will know what reinforcements have recently been flown into Northern Ireland. It is not for the security forces to ask for additional powers. That is a political matter, and it will be decided upon by the Northern Ireland Government in conjuction with my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Speaker

I did call Mr. Ford.

Mr. Ford

Will the hon. Gentleman say what arrangements have been made in the present circumstances to inform relatives in this country of the deaths of troops in Northern Ireland or anywhere abroad? What degree of seriousness of wounding is necessary before the relatives are so informed?

Mr. Gilmour

Of course, as soon as a soldier is killed, his relations are informed. The same applies when a soldier is wounded.