HC Deb 03 February 1972 vol 830 cc810-22

10.23 p.m.

Mr. Stratton Mills (Belfast, North)

The Ulster Defence Regiment, which is the subject of my debate this evening, commenced operation in April, 1970. This is the first occasion on which it has been debated in this House. I envisage this as a stocktaking debate so that we may get more information from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary for Defence for the Army about the progress of the Regiment and point to areas where further advances might be made.

I welcome my hon. Friend to his new responsibilities for this Regiment, which are much appreciated, and the interest which he has taken in its development and recruitment. I know how busy he is when he comes on a visit to Northern Ireland, but some of the part-time men in the Regiment have indicated that they would greatly welcome an opportunity to meet him when he next comes over. I am sure that he will respond accordingly.

The Regiment was part of the reforms of 1969. It is absolutely important to make clear at the beginning of the debate that, in my view, the Regiment is an effective Force, doing a very good job of vital importance to the security of Northern Ireland.

Comparisons were made at the beginning between this Regiment and the "B" Specials, but it is important to emphasise that this Regiment has many advantages both in the deployment and in equipment over the former force.

It has a record of sadness: a record of seven men murdered in foul circumstances, many attacked, many threatened. While not asking my hon. Friend to be specific tonight, I ask him to give an assurance that the maximum attention is paid to every method of protecting the members of this Force both on duty and in their off-duty hours.

I come to the question of recruitment. Unfortunately, at the beginning recruitment got off to a very slow start. Some politicians in Northern Ireland who gave the impression that the "B" Specials might be brought back, or that an alternative third force might be created, did a disservice to the regiment in holding back recruitment. But it is now recognised that this is the Force that people must join to play their part in helping to defend Northern Ireland. The figures for recruiting have been very much more encouraging in the last six to nine months. At present there is a ceiling of 10,000 men, but I understand that this can go higher. I ask my hon. Friend to tell the House how recruiting is progressing, what effect the campaign of intimidation and murder directly on members of the Force has had on recruiting, and how the recruiting campaign of which he has been in charge has been progressing.

On the subject of advertising and the Press material at present, my hon. Friend would receive a greater response if he were to stress the patriotic element in playing a part in defending Northern Ireland. This would be most useful. I understand that recruiting in certain areas has been disappointing, particularly in parts of County Londonderry, and in South Down. Perhaps my hon. Friend has some ideas about how recruiting in these areas, where there is great need for the Force, can be improved.

Another point is that at the beginning of 1970, when the Force was being formed, a number of men, particularly in those areas, were turned down because of the ceiling on numbers in the Regiment and because of the need to keep a religious balance in the Regiment, which was a strong motivation in those days. But now there is a desperate need for men, especially in the areas of County Londonderry and South Down. Could another look be taken at the initial applications of men from those areas who are anxious to serve their country?

Regarding vetting procedures, I recognise that these were inevitably slow in the early days, but they have now been brought down to an average of about four weeks. I welcome this trend. I know that in Parliamentary Answers my hon. Friend has said that the Government hope to further reduce the time. Perhaps my hon. Friend can say more about this matter.

Furthermore, there are cases in which vetting is taking very much longer than the average. In some cases it takes 10 or 12 weeks. I would ask that every effort be made to improve and iron out this problem, as well as improving the general methods of speeding up vetting.

Another point about vetting procedures is that when someone in a small community applies to join the Regiment and is turned down, this is a very substantial stigma. I hope that my hon. Friend will realise this. For example, if my hon. Friend was blackballed from the Carlton Club he would feel a certain stigma. This is very much the position in a small community such as Northern Ireland, and inevitably it has the effect of holding back recruiting because of this fear. So, whilst I recognise that this is difficult, I would ask once again that this matter be examined to see whether some compromise can be created between, on the one hand, no explanation being given and, on the other hand, an explanation which could reveal the confidentiality of reports about individuals. I would suggest, perhaps, that some form of appeal procedure could be effective in making people a little happier about this, because this is a matter about which there has been a fair amount of anxiety.

In addition to this, a number of men have been turned down on medical grounds. In some cases they have been told the reason. In other cases they have not been told that they have been turned down on medical grounds. Therefore, this atmosphere of stigma remains. My hon. Friend knows of a case about which I have been in correspondence with him. One hopes that this minor irritant can be overcome by referring the men to an Army doctor, for instance. A short time ago the Catholic membership of the Force was about 15 per cent. What changes have there been? A Member of Parliament in Stormont has said: I would encourage all sections of the community to join this force. Those were the words of John Hume in November, 1969. How sad that this atmosphere has changed. He was joined in his remarks by people like Ivan Cooper, Paddy Kennedy and the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt).

Now, for reasons which have nothing to do with this Force, they seem to have turned very strongly against it. In August, 1971, Austin Currie, a Stormont Member of Parliament, took part in a meeting at St. Mary's Hall, Belfast, with the specific purpose of encouraging Catholics to leave the Force. I was glad to see that, according to Press reports, despite a barrage of propaganda, only very few—I think only 17 on that occasion—followed his advice.

Another body, a Republican Front organisation, the Catholic Ex-Service Men's Association, has been engaging in propaganda of the same nature to get Catholic members of the force to drop out. I strongly condemn this. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to give some figures generally on the extent of intimidation and pressure to get Catholic members to leave the Force.

Another subject of concern is the importance of using the Force locally. This is felt very strongly, particularly in country areas. The men have a strong desire to serve in their own area, where they know the people and the ground, and to avoid having to drive long distances to areas with which they are not familiar.

I recognise the Regiments' efforts to meet this aim. The formation of additional battalions is immensely welcomed as part of this process. I recognise that to go further in the localisation process depends on having a greater number of men in the Regiment. This is why one comes back to the importance of recruitment, particularly in the areas where the regiment is thin at the moment.

We have discussed before the question of a permanent battalion of the Regiment. Last summer, in an interview published in the Belfast Telegraph, General Tuzo said: I am strongly in favour of a full-time battalion of the Ulster Defence Regiment. I think it would give a lot of men of that excellent regiment the chance to give more useful service over longer periods. I certainly echo that aim. This is the right method of approach.

However, this is not to be. I would therefore put an alternative idea. I understand that, at the moment, each battalion has a number of full-time men, such as the C.O., the adjutant and a clerk. It would surely increase the effectiveness of this force if each battalion were to have a larger skeleton of full-time men, not, as in the original General Tuzo idea, a full-time battalion as such. With their assistance, one could greatly increase the effectiveness of the part-time men. I hope that this will be considered seriously.

I also understand that the Regiment was not envisaged to be used in riot situations, but in the turbulent situation of the present in Northern Ireland, a riot situation sometimes blows up where the Regiment is actually involved. I can think of a town where there was arson going on and a unit of the Regiment happened to be there on duty. In this case, the nearest Army unit was a considerable distance away, and the troops were not able to be used.

Alternatively, let us take an imaginary situation. Let us imagine an R.U.C station in the country, guarded by men of the Ulster Defence Regiment: a crowd attacks it, and they are in the middle of a riot situation. I urge that some form of basic training in crowd control be considered, together with training in the use of CS and rubber bullets, for use in the kind of extreme situation that I have described.

I come now to a number of detailed points. The first group concern equipment. My hon. Friend told the House on 1st February that the issue of S.L.R. rifles to the Regiment was "nearing completion". May we have more details? Are we to take it that, in time, everyone in the Regiment will have them? Are they getting enough training in the firing of this weapon?

I am told that there is not enough winter clothing in a number of parts of the Regiment. I understand that in one county area only 10 per cent. of the men have water-proof clothing.

What percentage of the Regiment have flak jackets. I realise the difficulties. They are in short supply and have to come from America. Perhaps special efforts could be made to buy American surplus. They should be given to men in the Regiment.

Then I have a couple of financial points. I understand that the tax-free bounty is £35. For the Territorial Army, which is not involved actively in the present emergency, it is £60. There is a strong case for having these on an equal footing as a recognition of the work which the Regiment is doing at present.

A major grouse on the financial side is that P.A.Y.E. is not deducted from earnings. As these tend to go up and down a lot with the amount of additional service that the men undertake, at the end of a tax year they are often confronted with large bills. I know that this point has been looked at. If it could be sorted out, it would be widely appreciated.

Quite often, the men use their own cars when they are on duty. The allowance of 3p a mile is very low. It is very much lower than that which applies in the Civil Service, and it is even lower than that paid to Members of Parliament, which I thought was fairly near the bottom of the list. I hope that the mileage allowance will be looked at sympathetically.

Another minor point concerns insurance. There are certain circumstances in which the men are not covered for compensation by the Regiment. If they are involved in injuries, for example, from a hit and run driver or through being stoned when coming off duty they are not covered. A number of men have taken out general accident policies. The amount of money is not large, but as the need for insurance is linked with their service in the Regiment I hope that consideration will be given to the possibility of premiums being met centrally by the Regiment.

A good deal of use is made of the telephone. It would be useful if more of the men, especially those in outlying areas, could be helped with telephones. Communications are vital.

Then I hope that my hon. Friend is in a position to tell us about the interchangeability with the Territorial Army which has been operating for some time but which has not been very successful, I understand.

Those are a few comments about the Regiment. I emphasise as I did at the beginning, that I think that the overwhelming bulk of the people of Northern Ireland feel that it is worthy of support. They recognise very strongly its valour, bravery and determination.

10.40 p.m.

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

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast. North (Mr. Stratton Mills) for raising the subject of the Ulster Defence Regiment. This is the first time that we have had the opportunity of debating this as a separate issue since its formation, although we have made points about the Regiment and its progress from time to time. As my hon. Friend says, this is by nature of a stocktaking exercise and I am grateful to him for his interest and support and for the well-justified praise he has given to the Regiment for the magnificent way in which it carries out its duties. I can assure him that I take great pride in my association with the Regiment and look forward to my next visit to the Regiment. It is a most effective force.

Since I was given responsibility for the Regiment last October, a lot of progress has been made. There were, even at that time, still some doubts in Northern Ireland about the usefulness of the part which the Regiment had to play alongside the Regular Army in defending the peace in Ulster. My main aims then—and I see no reason to change them now —were threefold. The first was to boost and maintain recruitment to the Regiment towards the 10,000 figure. The bigger the Force, the more effective it can be and the greater geographical spread it can have. My second aim was to get for the Regiment the equipment, clothing, buildings and the rest that it needed to ensure that it was never the poor relation of the rest of the Army.

To do this corners had to be cut, priorities adjusted, pressures exerted. I could see that unless a man had the right kit, the right weapon, the right vehicle and the right base, it was expecting a lot of a part-time soldier to face arduous, sometimes tedious and sometimes dangerous work. We have not gone all the way, and I do not want my hon. Friend to think that we are complacent about what we have achieved, but we are well on the road.

My third objective was to make it clear to everyone, both here and in Northern Ireland, that the U.D.R. is an efficient, highly disciplined force in which Ulstermen can serve their own country and yet be part of the Army alongside which they serve. In the four visits I made to Northern Ireland last year, I was able to visit every U.D.R. battalion and to see at first hand what an efficient, non-sectarian and worthwhile force the U.D.R. was. In common parlance, it was "in good nick", and it still is.

My hon. Friend raised a number of interesting points and I will try to deal with as many as possible. The first was to do with recruitment. At the close of business yesterday the strength of the Regiment was 269 officers and 6,876 other ranks, making a total of 7,145. This represents an increase in strength of 70 per cent. over the last six months. I think that is a fantastic record. In addition, about 700 applicants have been accepted but not yet enrolled and a further 665 applications are being processed. The January average of about 160 a week is still about twice what it was six months ago.

These figures speak for themselves and show that the Regiment has established itself as an effective part of the machinery for bringing peace and security to Northern Ireland and is welcome to the men of Ulster who want to fight for peace. It is in this way, by helping the security forces and being part of the system for overcoming the I.R.A., that we can obtain the peace in Ulster without which there can be no political or social progress.

We are continuing our efforts to obtain more recruits in all areas and among all sections of the community. My hon. Friend has mentioned Derry and County Down. Obviously, I will look into what he said on my next visit. We are continuing constructive efforts to maintain the record of recruitment. In particular —and I am glad that my hon. Friend mentioned this point—we are anxious to see more Roman Catholic applicants. The Regiment is a non-sectarian organisation where people of all denominations and none, can work together. Obviously, perhaps understandably enough, the upsurge in recruiting in recent months has had the effect of reducing the percentage of Roman Catholics.

My hon. Friend asked about the effects of intimidation. I have no recent evidence to show that this has been a significant factor affecting the number of Roman Catholics serving in the Regiment. The number serving has remained steady during recent months and I do not think that one can pay too high a tribute to the Catholic members of the community for their loyal service to the Regiment.

My hon. Friend also mentioned vetting. I can promise every prospective applicant, whatever his religious denomination, background or experience, that his application to join the Regiment will be considered throughly and impartially by the G.O.C. Northern Ireland. As regards the vetting of applications, I can reassure the House that there has been no change in the general arrangements for considering applications as they were described during the debates on the Ulster Defence Regiment Bill a little over two years ago.

In short, apart from satisfying ourselves about the standard requirements as regards health, age and so on, our sole purpose is to establish that the applicant is of good character, is not an active supporter of any organisation at one or other extreme of the political spectrum and is likely to act in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland as a whole. I believe that these arrangements have worked well during the past two years.

Of course, I understand the disappointment of those who feel that it was not right for them to be rejected. But the application is private. No one need know if some one has made the private application. We do not publish any rejections by name.

I know that my hon. Friend is most interested in the time taken to clear applications. He will recall that in my reply to his Question on 20th October I said that the whole procedure was taking about four weeks as compared with about six weeks a year earlier. We have improved on this further and the average time is now nearer three weeks than four. I do not believe that it would be right to sacrifice thoroughness for the sake of speed. While we should naturally continue to deal with applications as quickly as possible, we must continue to do our utmost to see that applicants are not accepted who are regarded by the G.O.C., Northern Ireland, working on fair and proper lines, as not acceptable for enrolment into the Regiment. Perhaps if a person is rejected he could be examined by his own doctor who could tell him that he was not suitable on medical grounds.

But I am sure that it is not right that we should adopt a general rule that we should give reasons for rejection. This is a practice to which the Army has adhered over the years. The Ulster Defence Regiment is an integral part of the Army, and I am sure that we are right to maintain this well-tried practice. I agree that sometimes the decision will be a matter of fine professional judgment, but I am convinced that the G.O.C., Northern Ireland, should not only be insulated from political and sectarian influences but should also be protected against pressures to re-open cases already decided.

I do not know whether I have wholly satisfied my hon. Friend on this matter, but at any rate we have had very few complaints over the years and months.

My hon. Friend also mentioned full-time elements in the Ulster Defence Regiment. We are precluded by the Act that set up the Regiment from having full-time battalions. I am glad that my hon. Friend mentioned the possibility of having more people who can act as permanent staff of the Regiment to undertake duties connected with the basic organisation, administration and running of the various units and sub-units, including the security of U.D.R. property. We are looking very hard at a proposal to increase substantially the number of Conrates, as they are called, for security guard and administrative duties, but the question of having a full-time unit, which I have considered most carefully, would involve legislation and a change in the character of the Regiment. It is basically a part-time force for duty at nights and week-ends, supported by a much smaller number of permanent staff for the duties I have mentioned.

The question of localisation was also mentioned by my hon. Friend. The very fact that we have had so much expansion and the creation of new battalions and companies will of itself help overcome the need that people felt to work with an organisation that could be seen to have some effect on the area in which they live. We have gone a long way, through the additional strength of the U.D.R., to ensure that it has a more local effect.

But the deployment of the Regiment must be a matter for the military judgment of the G.O.C., and, of course, as the U.D.R. strength increases, so its members will be able to serve nearer their homes.

My hon. Friend referred to clothing and equipment. I assure my hon. Friend that all have been equipped with S.L.Rs. and that we agree that they must be provided with the equipment to carry out their job. Special clothing items have been provided for the U.D.R. My hon. Friend mentioned, for example, armoured vests. I can inform him that 1,720 of these are being obtained from the United States. The first consignment of 360 has already arrived and been issued, and the U.D.R. now has about 1,200 of these vests in service. To tide them over, the Regular Army in Northern Ireland has loaned some hundreds of its armoured vests to the U.D.R. All ranks have now been issued with the heavy wool jersey instead of the old pattern pullover.

The U.D.R., together with the Regular Army in Northern Ireland, has been the first to receive the new combat liner, which is a quilted, lightweight, sleeveless garment worn underneath the combat smock. It replaces the greatcoat in the field.

Windproof and waterproof smocks and trousers are new items which have been specially developed for use in Northern Ireland. When a production run of 6,000 suits for the Regular Army is completed, which will be within a matter of days, a further run of 5,500 suits for the U.D.R. will follow as soon as possible. They will then be fully equipped against all weather conditions.

My hon. Friend referred to the mileage allowance. The allowance the U.D.R. men receive is in line with the T.A.V.R. allowances, and these are regularly reviewed. I could not authorise a mileage allowance which was special to the U.D.R., though if my hon. Friend can produce examples of hardship being occasioned which would affect the efficiency of the Regiment, then obviously I would undertake to look into the matter afresh.

I do not have time in this debate to reply in detail to my hon. Friend's questions about insurance. Those who are killed or injured due to war conditions are eligible for war pension benefits, but I will write to my hon. Friend with fuller details on this subject.

We are aware of the dangers that the men face and the shameful, cowardly attacks on members of the U.D.R. which have resulted in death and injury, the last only two days ago, are condemned by all decent people.

We are conscious of the danger that members of the Regiment face, both at home and on duty. I deeply commend and admire their steadfastness. They have never allowed this evil threat to stand in the way of their sense of service to the community.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eight minutes to Eleven o'clock.