HC Deb 20 April 1972 vol 835 cc725-32
6. Mr. Duffy

asked the Minister of State for Defence what plans he now has to make an official visit to Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement.

Lord Balniel

I plan to visit the Army in Northern Ireland again next month.

Mr. Duffy

In view of the recent statement by the Prime Minister and the welcome desire to look to the future rather than the past, and bearing in mind the recent fresh and striking departure in policy, will not the Minister agree that a vital condition for a sane solution of the Whitelaw mission is a low-key approach by troops in future and preferably a withdrawal or growing detachment from sensitive areas? Does the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge that an early visit by him to Northern Ireland might be interpreted in some quarters—and one hopes in all quarters—as a recognition by him of these facts and as an earnest of his own good and positive intentions?

Lord Balniel

I visit the Army in Northern Ireland when I consider it to be in the public interest to do so, but I regard it as important to restore and maintain law and order and to avoid inter-communal stress and disorder. At the same time the security forces are aware of the extreme importance of encouraging this in the community and are working with great courage to restore peace and to persuade those who seek to further violence to cease this mode of operation. This is taken into account in the orders available to the Army.

Mr. Stratton Mills

Before my hon. Friend carries out his visit, could he investigate a report that Martin Meehan, the I.R.A. leader, was observed by the Army entering a house in the Marrowbone area of Belfast on Saturday, but the Army was unable to get clearance in time to apprehend him?

Lord Balniel

I will look into the matter raised by my hon. Friend.

Mr. Stallard

Will the hon. Gentleman accept that the aim of most of us who have an interest in the Six Counties is to create an atmosphere in which peace can be restored? Will he on his visit have discussions with Army commanders in the Six Counties to see whether it is possible to withdraw troops from Catholic areas to relieve some of the pressure in those areas in an attempt to restore peace there?

Lord Balniel

I agree that it is the wish of most hon. Members in this House that peace should be restored, but we have first to recognise that we cannot leave areas subject to the tender mercies of gunmen. We cannot have areas in which law and order does not exist and the rules are laid down by gunmen. That is quite unacceptable.

Mr. Goodhart

Is my hon. Friend aware that many of us are disturbed that many IRA members seem to be able to visit the Bogside and Creggan with impunity while my right hon. Friend and other British Ministers have not been able to enter that area? Is he further aware that although we recognise the need at times for the Armed Forces in Northern Ireland to maintain a low profile, many of us are disturbed at the continuing tolerance and, indeed, subsidisation of no-go areas?

Lord Balniel

The Army will continue to act, as appropriate in its opinion and in the opinion of the responsible Minister, to counter terrorism with determination and as actively and effectively as it can.

18. Mr. Cronin

asked the Minister of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the progress of the operations of the British Army in Ulster.

Lord Balniel

The Army continues energetically to counter violence and terrorism.

Mr. Cronin

Will the noble Lord reassure the House that no intensive operations will take place in the no-go areas until Roman Catholic support for the IRA has been greatly reduced by the political initiative? Will he also bear in mind that no circumstances, or hardly any circumstances, should ever again justify 13 people being shot dead in a British city.

Lord Balniel

It would be wrong for me to anticipate operational moves made by the Army. However, as I have already said, the broad purpose of the Army has not changed. It is to restore law and order and to prevent inter-communal strife, which the Army will continue to do. Concerning the events in Londonderry, I have nothing to add to the report made by the Lord Chief Justice.

Mr. McMaster

In view of the continued shootings and bombings in Northern Ireland and, most recently, the horrible murder of Corporal James Elliott and the use of his body as a booby trap, will the Minister urge the Army to do all it can to tighten control on the Border between the North and South of Ireland?

Lord Balniel

The murder to which my hon. Friend referred was peculiarly squalid and aroused the revulsion, I should think, of all humane persons. I have explained on several occasions that whereas there are some steps we can effectively take to hinder the movement of terrorists across the Border, the complete closure of the Border would demand large forces and that is not regarded as practicable.

Mr. Hattersley

Reverting to the supplementary question of my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Mr. Cronin), may I remind the right hon. Gentleman of paragraphs 33 and 34 of the report of the Lord Chief Justice which imply that military operations must take into account the importance of ensuring the safety of civilians, many of them innocent civilians, who might be caught in crossfire if precipitate action were taken? May we have the Minister's assurance that future military operations will take account of that suggestion?

Lord Balniel

They always have.

Mr. Kilfedder

Will my right hon. Friend tell the House when he expects the destruction of the bestial IRA terrorists who are waging this terrible campaign in Northern Ireland? Will he also explain how the Army will reply to IRA gunfire when it is directed from behind women and children?

Lord Balniel

It is extraordinarily unwise for any Minister, when the Army is engaged in military operations, to forecast a date when those operations will be concluded. I am certain that it is the wish of the vast majority of the population in Northern Ireland that terrorism, gunfire, murder and all the horrors which exist should be ended at the earliest possible moment. The whole House is aware of the immense difficulties facing the Army in dealing with urban guerrilla warfare. I think the House recognises that the Army has conducted its operations with skill and restraint.

Mr. Simon Mahon

Is the Minister aware that Catholics in both this country and Ireland hate and deplore the violence just as much as he and other hon. Members? Is he further aware that it is only by the cessation of these atrocities and violence by the IRA that we can have a just and lasting peace? We all understand that. However, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman to take notice of the plea made by my hon. Friend and other hon. Members to keep Army activity, in view of what happened in Derry, in the lowest possible key bearing in mind the safety of British troops?

Lord Balniel

I will, of course, take account of the point which the hon. Gentleman has made. However, he will appreciate that there still remains a considerable volume of violence in Northern Ireland. For instance, in the last five days alone there have been 200 shooting incidents, not just 200 rounds fired. It depends not only on the military but, as the hon. Member said, upon the community at large to bring this considerable volume of violence to an end.

23. Mr. McMaster

asked the Minister of State for Defence what urban areas in Northern Ireland are not being regularly patrolled by foot and mobile units, respectively.

Lord Balniel

Apart from the Creggan and Bogside areas of Londonderry there are no areas in Northern Ireland which are not regularly patrolled by foot or mobile units as and when the need arises.

Mr. McMaster

Will my right hon. Friend make a careful study of the opening paragraph of the Widgery Report which sets out the failure of the policy over the past two years in the Creggan and the Bogside to lead to the terrorists giving up their activities? As murders, shooting in the back of the knee, tarring and feathering, and so on, are continuing in these areas, will my right hon. Friend ensure that the rule of law is restored by the Army since the police, having been disarmed as a result of the recommendations of the Hunt Report and the intervention of Sir Arthur Young, are unable to go into these areas to do it themselves?

Lord Balniel

The comparatively low level of activity in the Creggan and Bogside, which is of long standing, is in no way a new development. However, it reflects the desire of the Army to co-operate as far as possible with those who are working to reduce violence in those areas. We are anxious not to frustrate the chances of those who, with immense courage, are trying to eliminate violence in those areas.

Mr. Paget

How does one eliminate violence with the I.R.A. when it is precisely dedicated to it? How on earth does one restore order in Northern Ireland while, with our tacit consent, fortified areas are maintained, like Saracen castles, from which it operates?

Lord Balniel

The Army will take what steps are necessary to go after the gunmen and terrorists. I do not believe that terrorism of this kind can be dealt with solely by barricades and bullets. It must have the co-operation of the mass of the population concerned.

Mr. Winterton

Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what steps the Army is taking to prevent terrorist leaders making official visits to these no-go areas in Northern Ireland?

Lord Balniel

I have already answered that question.

Mr. Hattersley

May I revert to an earlier question? I am sure the Minister shares my view of the importance of safeguarding the interests and lives of the innocent civilian population. In a previous answer, the Minister said categorically that the Army had always taken that view. Paragraph 34 of the Widgery Report says categorically that to these people the dangers were under-estimated. I have no wish to recriminate, but may we be assured that in future operations the interests of the civilian population will be regarded as of paramount importance?

Lord Balniel

The interests of the civilian population are of the utmost importance. Equally the report pointed out the fact that the casualties would not have occurred if that illegal march had not taken place. One is equally bound to say that those who participate in illegal marches which are likely to result in violence are taking a very grave risk upon themselves.

26. Sir G. Nabarro

asked the Minister of State for Defence how many British troops were in Ulster on 15thApril, 1972, or the most recent convenient date, and how this figure compares with 1st January, 1970, 1st January, 1971, and 1st January, 1972.

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Army (Mr. Geoffrey Johnson Smith)

The total number of Regular troops amounted to some 8,100 on 1st January, 1970, 7,600 on 1st January, 1971, 14,300 on 1st January, 1972, and 14,600 on 1st April, 1972. In addition the total strength of the Ulster Defence Regiment amounted to some 4,000 on 1st January, 1971, 6,700 on 1st January, 1972, and 8,200 on 1st April, 1972.

Sir G. Nabarro

Having regard to the increase in the number of Armed Forces in Northern Ireland and the continued depletion of BAOR, would my hon. Friend and his colleagues at the Ministry of Defence reconsider their earlier reply to me, refusing to raise six additional infantry battalions by bringing up to battalion strength those famous regiments of the line at present confined to company strength?

Mr. Johnson Smith

I well appreciate my hon. Friend's enthusiasm for the Army. I hope he will not think me churlish if I give him a similar reply and reject his request. After all, we are embarked on expanding four of the six representative companies and raising four battalions of infantry to help in meeting the demands placed on the Army in meeting the situation in Northern Ireland. Although units go from BAOR to Northern Ireland, we ought to keep this in perspective. Out of a total of 55,000 troops, approximately 5,000 are redeployed from BAOR to Northern Ireland in an infantry rôle.

Mr. Ridsdale

Is there not a considerable over-stretch at present in the infantry capability of the Army? Will my hon. Friend consider raising these battalions to help, among other things, the unemployment problem?

Mr. Johnson Smith

I do not think we ought to look to recruiting to solve the unemployment problem. People join the Army because they want to, and that is the best motivation; not because they are unemployed. But we have tried and are trying to meet the views of my hon. Friend, as I say, by expanding four new battalions of infantry.