HC Deb 20 July 1972 vol 841 cc921-31
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. William Whitelaw)

The House will wish to be aware of developments in the situation in Northern Ireland since my statement last Friday.

The rate of shooting incidents involving the security forces has fallen from the very high figure given in my last statement, but I must tell the House that they remain at the level of 50–70 a day. The majority have occurred in Belfast. The IRA have again used a rocket launcher, but, fortunately, caused no casualties and little damage. Six soldiers, a member of the UDR and a constable of the RUC have been killed. One of the soldiers lost his life while attempting to defuse a bomb. Nineteen soldiers and two constables of the RUC have been wounded. A civilian was shot dead when he tried to apprehend two terrorists planting a bomb; and I know the House has learned with particular sorrow that a baby boy was killed by an explosion in Strabane yesterday. I am sure the House will wish to express its sympathy with the families concerned.

Several explosions have caused damage to the centre of Londonderry since my last statement, and a large explosion caused extensive damage in Port down. The Army's action against the terrorists is continuing. Reports indicate that about 150 terrorist have been hit by Army fire since the end of the ceasefire. The Provisional IRA has publicly admitted to substantial casualties.

The House will wish to know that I have authorised stringent new security measures in both Belfast and Londonderry to protect life and property. These are bound to be irksome to innocent people, but they are necessary if the security forces are to carry out successfully their paramount function to protect the people of all communities and their property.

Meanwhile, I have embarked on the consultations with the political parties in Northern Ireland which I mentioned to the House on an earlier occasion with a view to a conference on the political future. In addition, I have made it known that I want all political parties and individuals who have views on the future arrangements for the governing of Northern Ireland to send those views to me in writing.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

We note the sombre details of the security situation which the right hon. Gentleman has given, and we wish to be associated with his expressions of sympathy.

While our support is for the low profile approach, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that in the face of bombing and shooting we support the security precautions he has taken? Lenadoon was the immediate, if not the basic, reason for the ending of the truce. Will the right hon. Gentleman consider for the future better and more efficient methods of mediation within this and similar areas? Lenadoon is part of the Suffolk Estate. Is he aware that any withdrawal of troops from that area must not endanger the lives of the soldiers who will necessarily have to continue to be there at the intersection of the Protestant and Catholic areas? Those who will be left there to keep the peace will be between two dangerous sectors of that estate.

We also note the right hon. Gentleman's announcement about political talks as an earnest of his determination to find a lasting political solution and reconciliation, but will he tell us more about the political consultations? Are they to be only by writing for some people, or will he hold talks with some people as well as receiving written evidence? In this respect, is he aware that, by exploring every avenue and talking to those who seek a military solution to find a basis for ending the urban warfare, he has talked with people from the South? Why not talk not only to the Northern Ireland political parties but to the political parties in the South which make no extravagant claims? Such discussion would in no sense abrogate from our responsibility for the Northern Ireland problem.

Finally, when are we to hear about the details of the economic developments which are to take place in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Whitelaw

I accept what the hon. Gentleman says about the details of the security situation and the sympathy he has expressed to the families concerned He described the low profile Army approach, and I am bound to say that where there is clearly a determination to resort to violence every effort will be made to root out the terrorists concerned. The fact that about 150 terrorists have been hit in the short period since the ceasefire shows that there has been a considerable effort by the Army.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to Lenadoon and the question of mediation. I must return to the point I have made all along—that I must regret that after an agreement had been reached by my officials with all those concerned as to how this difficult problem could have been solved, the opportunity for further meetings was not taken. I very much regret that fact.

The action taken by the Army in the Lenadoon area was taken on two counts: first, to protect the people in the area, and, secondly, because I am not prepared in any circumstances to allow the Army to be placed at a disadvantage in the sort of situation in which it finds itself. I therefore decided that, both to protect individuals and property and to see that the Army was in a position to protect itself, the action which was taken was necessary. I have no doubt that it was necessary. The area has been quiet since, and I very much hope that those families which decided to go away will appreciate that it is now quiet and that it would be sensible in these circumstances to return.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to political talks. I have made it clear that the conference we intend to have should be with the parties with elected representatives in Northern Ireland, and I think that that is very important. In the consideration of further action, one must make it clear that that is the basis of the conference on which I am working at the present time. That is the right basis, in my belief, and I wish to press on with it now.

Captain Orr

In addition to looking at the security situation in Belfast and Londonderry, would my right hon. Friend have a look at the situation in Newry, because there is fairly clear evidence that we may expect trouble there in the near future? I would be grateful if my right hon. Friend would do this.

On the general question about the political conference on the future of Northern Ireland, will he please comment on the suggestions in certain parts of the Press today that he may be seeing Dr. Hillery of the Irish Republic? Would he please make it plain that Her Majesty's Government will negotiate with the Irish Republic on matters of common interest between the two kingdoms, but that the Irish Republic—

Mr. Rose


Captain Orr

Well, between the two countries. But will my right hon. Friend agree that the Irish Republic has no standing whatever in the internal affairs of Northern Ireland?

Mr. Whitelaw

My hon. and gallant Friend makes the point about his own constituency in Newry, and I will certainly look into this urgently. He secondly makes the point about Dr. Hillery, who is likely to be in London tomorrow. It is true that Dr. Hillery's talks are properly with my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. That is where they rest. He has asked if he might, as he was passing, see me, and I thought it would be a courtesy to see him. I shall, of course, be doing so in the company of an official from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office because that is the Department which properly deals with him and with the Republic.

May I take the opportunity to refer to the economic measures to which the hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees) referred and to which I did not reply. I hope to be able to announce these very soon. They are important in the context of the Northern Ireland unemployment situation, which, I regret to say, has been seen to be worse today.

Mr. McManus

Will the right hon. Gentleman try to explain to me how the majority population is expected to believe that he is genuinely interested in reconciliation, so called, when he insists on maintaining a provocative and needless Army presence in the Lenadoon area which has forced the population to retreat? Why has he allowed the Army today to invade certain areas in West Belfast and knock down barricades? Secondly, since many civilians have been killed by rubber bullets, will the right hon. Gentleman now instruct the Army not to use these lethal weapons any more in crowd control? Thirdly, when will he live up to his promise made to this House on several occasions and release all the internees?

Mr. Whitelaw

I have made the position on Lenadoon perfectly clear. The hon. Gentleman and the House must appreciate the position as it was on the ground. There was considerable firing at an Army post, and a bulldozer vehicle was run down the hill with a bomb in it, designed to blow up the Army post. In those circumstances I would have been totally failing in my duty if I had not said that that was an intolerable position. Equally, it was intolerable for the citizens in the area who were being subjected to considerable shooting. I must point out to the hon. Gentleman that since the Army action was taken the shooting in the area, apart from a few shots the night before last, has stopped. Therefore, the area is now peaceful. That is why I hope that the people who have left it will feel able to return. As for the point about "many civilians being killed by rubber bullets", I have no such evidence. If the hon. Gentleman has evidence of "many civilians being killed by rubber bullets" I hope that he will give it to me. I certainly do not know of it.

Mr. Powell

May I ask my right hon. Friend how many more lives he considers will be fruitlessly sacrificed before he comes to realise what he was told months ago in this House, that the political policy on which he is engaged has proved disastrous, is driving the Province into the arms of civil war and will have to be altered?

Mr. Orme

What is your alternative?

Mr. Whitelaw

I note what my right hon. Friend has said; I do not accept it. I do not accept the argument that a policy which is designed to find reconciliation, which is designed sensibly to end violence, is a wrong policy. That is what I am engaged in doing. I do not expect my right hon. Friend, who has been permanently opposed to me and everything I am trying to do, to do anything at all to try to help me in that task. I do not expect him to do so because he is perfectly entitled to take his view and I am entitled to take mine. I fully understand his feelings. What I believe is that there is no alternative to a sensible policy of reconciliation combined with an absolute determination to stand up for the rights of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom if they so wish and, at the same time, to make sure that violence does not pay. That is my policy. I know that my right hon. Friend does not accept what I am trying to do. That is what I believe is right and that is what I intend to go on trying to do.

Mr. Grimond

May we express our sympathy with the relatives of those who have lately been murdered in Northern Ireland? May we also say to the Secretary of State that we, at least, fully support his policy of attempting genuine political reconciliation? We approve of his determination to try to get the elected representatives of various parties in Northern Ireland brought to talks, and we recommend him to talk to the representatives of Eire. May I ask him whether he does not agree that should all these efforts, on which he has spent so much time and energy, fail then the present situation cannot continue for ever? Is he aware that many people will respond to the Prime Minister's appeal to the Irish to settle themselves what must be an Irish question? If, after all this, there are certain areas in the Six Counties which totally reject what are, after all, the legal authorities, then it would seem that they are determined to leave the Six Counties and that consideration ought to be given in that very unhappy situation to whether those close to the border should not return to Eire. Would he not agree that what is certain is that we cannot continue with the situation whereby large areas of the country reject the authorities and also reject the very genuine efforts being made by the right hon. Gentleman to bring about a peaceful solution?

Mr. Whitelaw

Dealing first with the right hon. Gentleman's point about consultation with the political parties and individuals in Northern Ireland, I must, in view of what he has said, draw a particular distinction between those consultations which are with the people of Northern Ireland about their own future and talks with the representatives of Eire, to which the right hon. Gentleman referred. I must make it clear that my meeting with Dr. Hillery is purely a courtesy meeting and does not imply—nor would he expect this to be so—that Dr. Hillery is involved in the discussions I am having with the people of Northern Ireland about their future. As to his other comments, I believe firmly that the right of the people in Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom if they so wish is one to which we are all in this House most totally committed. If we are so committed we have an absolute duty to them. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wolver Hampton, South-West (Mr. Powell) and I may disagree on exactly how that particular commitment should be fulfilled but I do not think that we disagree in any way about the absolutely total nature of the commitment.

Mr. Powell indicated assent.

Mr. Whitelaw

To this we are all fully and absolutely charged—no one more than me. In honour, therefore, I can only say that I am totally committed to that principle, and I shall do my best within what I believe to be right to fulfil it.

Mr. McMaster

How can my right hon. Friend, after his experience in Northern Ireland, over the dead bodies of more than 450 people, the 7,000 injured and the damage done by the Provisional and Official IRA over the last three years in attacks on the general public, still talk about reconciliation? Does he really think that the problem in Northern Ireland is that of reconciliation? The great majority of people in Northern Ireland, both Catholic and Protestant, have no fear of reconciliation or hatred of one another; their hatred is of the IRA and Republican gunmen who are waging war in Northern Ireland. Will he abandon the fiction of reconciliation? We are not to be reconciled to gunmen, are we? Will he abandon the fiction of confrontation? All the damage in Ulster is done as a result of the aggressive actions of the IRA. These are the people who must be countered and brought to justice before there can be any peace.

Mr. Harold Wilson

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I think that by a slip of the tongue the hon. Gentleman referred to the Republican Government waging war.

Mr. McMaster

No, Republican gunmen.

Mr. Harold Wilson

It was important to get it right.

Mr. Whitelaw

I confirm to my hon. Friend, and I accept at once what he says, that there can be no reconciliation whatsoever with violence, but, equally, one has to face the fact that behind the violence there are roots which one has to consider and look at in the context of the whole situation. But there can be no reconciliation with violence, and I should have thought that my hon. Friend and many others would have welcomed the fact that there has been clear and determined Army action against the terrorists in the last few days, as is indicated by the large number who have been hit by Army fire.

Mr. Rose

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that those who came back from Dublin this morning found universal abhorrence of violence on the part of every one of the major political parties in the Republic and also a strong understanding of the fears of the Unionist majority in the North of Ireland? Does he accept that without the Republicans there can be no real solution to this problem and that this part of the equation cannot be left out because it is as much an Irish as a British problem? Will he, therefore, talk to the democratically-elected representatives of the people of the Republic, and take it that many of us welcome the fact that he will be meeting Dr. Hillery?

In particular, will the right hon. Gentleman talk about common problems and the constructive things that we can do on such matters as regional policy, rather than merely talking about the negative? Will he reject entirely the idea that there can be no reconciliation? As we know, there has been murder and violence on both sides, and will he condemn them both?

Mr. Whitelaw

I am pleased to hear of the hon. Gentleman's feelings after his return from Dublin about the total rejection of violence, which I believe is widespread on both sides, whether in the North or the South of Ireland.

I am glad, too, that the hon. Gentleman came back with an understanding of the fears of the majority in Northern Ireland, because this is vital to any understanding of the situation. It has to be appreciated, as I said very firmly to certain people, that it is not possible to absorb the population of Northern Ireland into a United Ireland against their will. There is no future that way at all, and that must be clearly understood by everybody concerned. If those in the South who want a united Ireland believe that they can achieve it, they will do it only if they can persuade the Protestants in the North—andnot only the Protestants but many others—that that is what is wanted. The activities of those concerned with violence over recent years have made it far more difficult to do that than it would otherwise have been, and that is another factor which everyone ought fully to appreciate.

The question of regional policy is extremely important. All this can be looked at, but to those who think that I am soft or lack political will may I retort that I believe the paramount necessity is to see that violence is ended.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

With regard to the forthcoming visit of Dr. Hillery, is it not essential, if we are to have a peaceful solution in Ireland, that we should have the fullest co-operation of the Republic? Whilst it is true that Dr. Hillery and any other Minister of the Republic has no constitutional standing in the North of Ireland, has not every Minister in the South of Ireland this interest, that if the IRA succeed in bringing down the Government in Northern Ireland first, it will be the Republic that will be the second?

Mr. Whitelaw

I think that the Government of the Republic and Dr. Hillery himself have no illusions on that score. I was merely making clear the proper constitutional position as it stands, which I did in answer to the previous question.

Mr. Duffy

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, in addition to the abhorrence of violence, those who were in Dublin until this morning encountered in many quarters sympathy and understanding for the rôle of the right hon. Gentleman and great appreciation of the work that he has done? Will he therefore bear in mind the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees) about consultations with the political parties in Dublin and other appropriate institutions where this can properly be done?

On the matter of security measures, may I draw the right hon. Gentleman's attention to a visit by hon. Members on this side of the House to Northern Ireland a month ago and inform him that my impression then—and we met people on both sides—was that, though they may find such security measures as he has described irksome, provided they are impartial they will not find them intolerable?

Mr. Whitelaw

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's last comment. Some of the security measures which have to be taken are certainly irksome. They mean people walking considerable distances and leaving their cars far from their place of work, but if the measures are effective in the end they must be right.

As for what the hon. Gentleman said about what he found in Dublin, I must stick to my previous answer that my conference and my discussions at this time must be with the people of Northern Ireland about their own future.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

Whilst agreeing with my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) on the value of discussions with and the vital importance of co-operation with the Irish Republic against the common enemy of all established Government in the British Isles, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether he will assure Dr. Hillery that at a time when the Irish Republican Government are trying to put the IRA inside he will not let too many out?

Mr. Whitelaw

When I meet Dr. Hillery I shall have to see what particular point he makes on that score. I do not quite see the point of my hon. Friend's question, because on the whole issue of internees I have always said that I have to base my decisions on the security situation in the North of Ireland, not in the South.