HC Deb 03 February 1972 vol 830 cc692-6
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Sir Alec Douglas-Home)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker and that of the House, I wish to make a statement.

As the House will be aware from Press reports, the British Embassy in Dublin was yesterday gutted by fire. This was the culmination of 36 hours of attacks on the premises of the British Embassy and of the Embassy's Commercial Department, about 50 yards away from the main building. In the course of the night of the 1st-2nd of February, the door of the Embassy was blown in by a gelignite bomb and renewed attacks with petrol the following morning led to the fire which destroyed the building. The staff were evacuated from the buildings early yesterday morning and there were no casualties.

The Government of the Irish Republic have a duty, in international law, to protect the premises of foreign embassies within the Republic. On this occasion the authorities had ample warning of the danger, both through the build-up of the crowd's activities and through specific warnings conveyed during the early evening of the 1st of February by the British Chargé d'Affaires in Dublin and by the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office yesterday morning to the Irish Chargés d'Affaires in London. Accordingly, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State summoned the Irish Chargé d'Affaires yesterday evening to protest at the failure of the Irish Authorities to carry out their responsibility. He made it clear that the British Government look to the Government of the Irish Republic for the most stringent measures to ensure the protection of all the members of the Embassy and that we would expect full compensation to be paid for the damage suffered. The Chargé d'Affaires accepted full responsibility on behalf of his Government and expressed great regret for what had happened.

Mr. Healey

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that Her Majesty's Opposition deplore this act of senseless vandalism and welcome the regret expressed by the Government of the Irish Republic and its readiness to pay full compensation? But would he not agree that it is dangerous to ignore the strength of popular feeling which lies behind this incident, and will he recognise the need for a political initiative which could lead to a wide-ranging discussion of all the issues now dividing the United Kingdom from the Irish Republic? Will he request his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to invite Mr. Lynch to London to arrange for such discussion?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I believe the whole House will deplore this incident. No doubt there are strong feelings in Ireland, but they cannot possibly justify the outrage perpetrated in Dublin yesterday. I feel I must give warning to the Irish Government that if they were to maintain the attitude they have taken—as in Mr. Hillery's speech, for instance, in New York yesterday—they could do most serious and lasting damage to relationshps between our two countries. Certainly, we want a political settlement and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has met Mr. Lynch lately in Brussels and has met Mr. Faulkner. The right hon. Gentleman knows the difficulty, but he cannot lay the blame on Her Majesty's Government for not seeking reconciliation and conversations with the leaders.

Mr. Healey

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware—and I say this to him with the deepest respect—that however much many of us may sympathise with his feelings in this matter, we on this side of the House are deeply disappointed by the tone of his reply to my question. The situation between the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic has seriously deteriorated in recent days. Is he aware that if there is to be an improvement in the situation some initiative is required from this side of the Irish Sea no less than from the other side? Unless the Government show themselves ready to seek some political initiative in this respect they will share responsibility for any further deterioration in the situation which may arise.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I do not think the right hon. Gentleman can reasonably complain. We wish the best possible relations with the Irish Republic, let that be quite clear. I believe this feeling is shared by every hon. Member in this House. We will take every step we can to try to devise the necessary conversations which will lead to a political settlement in Northern Ireland. But this is not helped by mob violence. Mob violence is no answer at all to this problem.

Sir D. Renton

Was not a large part of the work of the Embassy in Dublin greatly to the advantage of the economy of the Republic of Ireland, and will my right hon. Friend say what steps the Government of the Republic are taking to enable that work to be resumed?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

Certainly I think the work of the Embassy in Dublin was to the advantage of the Irish economy. I repeat, we want the best possible relations, we will try to contribute to that; and we want a political settlement of the Northern Ireland problem, but it must be contrived in an atmosphere of peace and calm.

Mr. Thorpe

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that those who have warn and close feelings towards the Republic, quite apart from deploring this action, can only be saddened by something which will achieve nothing and will make a peaceful solution of the Irish problem even more difficult? Is not the moral that violence, from whatever quarter, achieves nothing except the begetting of further violence? Is it not appropriate in the context of these events to say to those who were the first to call for bans on marches in Northern Ireland that they themselves by marching on Newry this Sunday will be producing the very violence which they have hitherto deplored?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I endorse everything the right hon. Gentleman has said.

Mr. Stratton Mills

In the light of these events, does Mr. Lynch still stand by his commitment to contain the I.R.A.?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

That is a matter for Mr. Lynch. We hope, certainly, that he will contain the activities of the I.R.A., which is trying to disrupt a peaceful settlement of the Irish problem.

Mr. McNamara

The whole House must deplore any loss of property or life that occurs, be it Irish or English, soldiers or civilians. Is not the sacking of the Embassy another terrible milestone on the route of the complete failure of Her Majesty's Government to find a true and lasting settlement to the Irish problem? Does it not place a heavy responsibility upon Her Majesty's Government in the light of instructions they have given to Her Majesty's Forces in Northern Ireland on their conduct towards civil rights demonstrators? Will the Foreign Secretary comment on newspaper reports this morning that the Government are considering a new aggressive initiative to try to bring peace to this unhappy island?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

A political settlement of the Northern Ireland problem can be reached only by discussion. The hon. Gentleman would be doing a great service to everybody by persuading his friends to enter into discussion with Her Majesty's Government and members of the Northern Ireland Government to find a way to the peaceful solution we all want. If he could do that, he would be doing something worth while.

Sir H. Legge-Bourke

Reverting to the question put by the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey), does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the greatest contributions which both sides of the House can make is to give at least as good a hearing to the case put for the British Army as we give to the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Miss Devlin)?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home


Mr. Delargy

Is it not a pity that, whereas from the Opposition we have had words of indignation at the burning down of a building, not one word of sympathy was expressed from the Government side of the House to the relatives of the 13 men who were killed?