HC Deb 11 May 1972 vol 836 cc1558-69
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. William Whitelaw)

I wish to tell the House of two urgent measures which I have felt it necessary to set in hand today. Since planning this statement, however, I have heard of the bestial crime committed against a 15-year-old girl in the Falls Road area of Belfast last night. I am sure the whole House, and indeed the vast majority of the community in Northern Ireland, utterly condemns this action. I would like to express my sympathy to the girl and her family. I can assure the House that the most strenuous action will be taken to bring those responsible to justice.

Turning now to the two urgent measures, two important Orders in Council have been made today. The first order extends the Northern Ireland explosives legislation so as to enable control to be exercised over substances which, although not in themselves explosives, are capable of being used for explosive purposes in combination with other substances. As many hon. Members may be aware, ammonium nitrate and sodium chlorate, both of which are readily available for agricultural use, have been used with deadly effect, of which we may have seen another example at the Belfast Cooperative building yesterday.

This order and the regulations which it empowers me to make, and which I intend to make as soon as possible, will enable these substances to be put under control: measures which I hope will help to save lives which might otherwise have been lost. The order will be laid before the House and the necessary resolutions moved within the 40-day period stipulated. I could have taken this action under the Special Powers Act but I thought the House would prefer me to do it this way.

I can now inform the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) that a second order has been made under the same procedure to set up a finance corporation for Northern Ireland so as to help to reduce the very serious levels of unemployment in Northern Ireland, which are themselves conducive to social unrest. This is an extremely urgent need, and a Bill to establish a finance corporation to give financial support to undertakings in the Province had passed all but the very last stages at Stormont. But for the prorogation it would almost certainly be in operation now.

I am anxious, and I feel sure all sides of the House will agree, that there should be no delay in setting up the corporation and enabling it to begin its vital work. This order also will, therefore, be laid as soon as possible and the necessary resolutions will likewise be moved in due course.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we of course support the expression of sympathy to the family and child in the Falls Road? What a way to treat a 15-year-old girl, whatever the background!

We welcome the right hon. Gentleman's decision to proceed in this way with the orders and not through the Special Powers Act. We fully accept that the order extending the explosives legislation is urgent, and qualifies for the urgency procedure under the Northern Ireland (Temporary Provisions) Act. I ask—perhaps against many people other than the right hon. Gentleman—as the order seems so sensible, why was it not done before? Terror by explosive not only maims and kills but puts back reconciliation between communities, and as the explosion at the Co-operative store last night shows, it is against the people as a whole.

The second order, relating to a finance corporation for Northern Ireland, is urgent also, but in another sense. We accept that the legislation has been discussed at Stormont, but we need full discussion on this economic matter in the House. The proposed finance corporation is similar in philosophy to the Industrial Reorganisation Corporation, which the Government saw fit to end when they came to office. It is interventionist in a way which runs contrary to the philosophy of the Government, and we ought to consider this change of policy on the ground that if it is good enough for Northern Ireland it may well be good enough for other parts of the United Kingdom.

Above all, we need all the documentation, as was revealed in the short debate the other night when hon. Members on both sides of the House felt that we were short of the relevant documents. We shall certainly need ready access to the Cairncross Report, which is a White Paper of Stormont. I note that the Expenditure Committee of the House discussed the Cairncross Report the other day, if only marginally, when it was revealed by Sir Alec Cairncross himself that some of the measures of cross-border co-operation that he wished to commend "somehow got left out ". If they "somehow got left out ", we ought to make sure when we discuss the matter that we have the chance to put them in.

We welcome the two orders, and I hope that, in his usual manner, the right hon. Gentleman will co-operate with us in what I have said, especially about documentation.

Mr. Whitelaw

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees) for what he has said about the girl. He was perfectly right to say what he said, whatever the consequences, which have to be investigated, although it is very important not to pre-judge the investigations of the police in these matters.

I am grateful, too, for what the hon. Gentleman said about explosives. I am painfully aware, perhaps more painfully than almost any other hon. Member, of the damage that explosives can so easily cause to everything that I am trying to do in the name of the House. I am glad to have done something. Although I cannot pretend that it will necessarily achieve all the results we may wish, it will do something, and everything that can be done to help, ought to be done.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the need for discussion of the setting up of the finance corporation. I am now in the perfect position in that I am never able to say anything about what discussions there are to be beyond noting requests for discussion.

Documentation, however, is my responsibility, and I must apologise to the House if there was anything wrong the other night. I will seek to do everything in my power to put it right for the debate. I must tell the House, as hon. Members will realise, that setting up an organisation such as mine, on the spur of the moment, with two Departments 300 miles apart, is not something to be done without difficulty. Nevertheless, I will do my best to ensure that all the documents are available, and I hope that that matter will be put right for the future.

I am entitled to reply to the hon. Gentleman's comment about the finance corporation that the unemployment and the situation occasioned by the violence in Northern Ireland are special circumstances. That is something on which I must insist—they are a special situation. The House will, therefore, appreciate that they should be dealt with in a special manner.

Captain Orr

Is my right hon. Friend aware that we welcome these two orders and that, subject to there being proper discussion, we will seek to facilitate their becoming law?

When does my hon. Friend expect the finance corporation to become operative? It is six weeks since the Bill completed all its stages at Stormont.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that one of the alarming features of the appalling and obscene treatment of the 15-year-old girl was the reports that she was paraded in the streets fairly openly during the four days that she was under the control of the IRA, and that the tarring and feathering took place openly, in public, in Belfast? It is important not only to assure people that there are no no-go areas, but that there should be seen to be no no-go areas.

Would my right hon. Friend note the photograph which appeared in theDaily Telegraphtoday showing a mobile patrol vehicle with written on its side "Mobile Patrol Vehicle IRA" moving about Belfast with masked men in it? If public confidence is to be restored, something has to be done about the situation in Belfast.

Mr. Whitelaw

The legislation to set up the finance corporation will become law immediately and the corporation will, I trust, be set up by next week.

I do not think that it would be right for me to comment on the various speculations about what might have happened in the case of the girl until I have had an absolutely full report from the police and the Army forces concerned. Perhaps I may tell the House that I live for a large part of my life in a time of rumour and not of fact, and that one thing I wish to achieve all the time is to have the facts and not to allow myself to comment on the great many rumours of all sorts and kinds which I hear, many of which, in the final event, turn out not to be proved. It is important that I should not be led away by rumour.

The Army tells me that the Land Rover has not been seen on patrol in Belfast, nor in Londonderry. The picture first appeared on 18th April in theIrish Timesand seems to have been reproduced on this occasion in theDaily Telegraph

I accept entirely what my hon. and gallant Friend says about the need to show that the Army and the other forces of law and order are fully operative in these areas. However, with the best will in the world, it is never possible in any country to make sure that the forces of law and order always achieve all they should. My purpose is to do everything I can to ensure that the forces of law and order in Northern Ireland are fully effective.

Mr. Thorpe

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we all wish to be associated with his expression of horror at this latest example of mob rule and his expression of hope that those responsible will be brought to book? Is he aware that there will be a widespread welcome in the House that he has preferred to proceed by Order in Council and not use the Special Powers Act, and that we hope that will be a precedent for the future?

I should like to ask two questions about the finance corporation. First, what will be its total capital resources available? Secondly, may we take it that no grant will be given to any corporation or firm unless it gives a clear undertaking to practise non-discrimination in employment?

Mr. Whitelaw

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for what he has said about the girl, and for what he has said about the use of the Special Powers Act. I undertook originally to the House that I would reject using the Special Powers Act. I am certainly doing that, and I do not wish, as I have shown in this instance, to proceed under it.

The finance corporation will have a capital of £50 million. Undertakings about non-discrimination in employment have been freely given to me by representatives of the CBI and the TUC in Northern Ireland, and I regard them as very important.

Mr. McMaster

In view of the continuing violence in Northern Ireland, mentioned by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Down, South (Captain Orr), the daily attacks on soldiers in Northern Ireland and the continuing bombing, such as that in Omagh earlier this week and of the Co-operative store in Belfast last night, would my right hon. Friend consider bringing in those troops which we were told were being held in reserve when the political initiative in Northern Ireland was announced, so that the situation could be brought quickly under control? If there is any doubt about the facts of the tarring and feathering of this girl and the torturing of Corporal Elliott, would my right hon. Friend set up an inquiry and publish its findings to the House?

Mr. Whitelaw

My hon. Friend suggests producing yet more troops, but I must tell him that, while I am absolutely determined to achieve proper law and order in Northern Ireland, I do not believe that in the long run that will be achieved by escalating military repression and more troops, though law and order must be preserved at all costs and it is extremely important that that should be so. But I do not believe that more than 17 battalions of British troops in the area are needed in order to achieve it.

I can tell my hon. Friend that the inquest into the death of Corporal Elliott will be held on 26th May and the coroner has agreed that I should have a copy of the pathologist's report, which I am extremely anxious to have. I hope that my hon. Friend will accept that, without having heard the result of the inquest and having seen the pathologist's report, one must not talk about tortures. One has to see what facts are produced. I am most anxious to receive the report, because I am anxious to know what the facts were in this case.

Mr. Fitt

May I also welcome the announcement by the Secretary of State about the two orders? In this context, may I also deprecate and deplore the attempt by the hon. and gallant Member for Down, South (Captain Orr) and the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. McMaster) to turn this occasion into a thinly veiled attack on the Secretary of State by bringing in matters which are extraneous to what we are discussing today? I am grateful that the Secretary of State is to proceed with the setting up of a finance corporation, which we hope will bring full employment to Northern Ireland. Again in that context, may I also, with all the vehemence at my command, deplore the attack made on the Co-operative store in Belfast yesterday afternoon, which has led to 750 people losing their employment? That type of activity will have no support from the people I represent.

Mr. Whitelaw

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he has said about the Belfast Co-operative building. It is important that one should realise the dangers to employment and prospective employment that these actions bring. I note what the hon. Gentleman has said about the supposed attacks on myself. I must tell him that I do not think that I need his protection from my hon. Friends. I do not think they are attacking me in any way. They are perfectly entitled to question what I am trying to do. There is no possibility of anyone doing my job pleasing all the people at the same time. There is not the slightest chance of that. All that I will do is to seek to do what I believe to be best in an exceptionally difficult situation.

Mr. Kilfedder

On the question of the photograph which is published in today's Press, does my right hon. Friend say that because the Army did not see this vehicle in the Falls area of Belfast it does not exist, or does he say that it is not so terrible because the first photograph was published as long ago as April?

May I inform my right hon. Friend that I had a telephone call to my home last night from a Roman Catholic lady in the Falls area imploring Her Majesty's Government, in the name of humanity, in the name of God, to stop the IRA from choking them in the Falls area of Belfast? Would he not agree that the bestial treatment of the schoolgirl and the torture and mutilation, which was confirmed by my right hon. Friend's colleague on Tuesday in the OFFICIAL REPORT, iS reminiscent of the thuggery of the Nazis in their rise to power? Will he immediately set up a tribunal of inquiry which would dispel—

Mr. Fitt

What about the two orders?

Mr. Kilfedder

If the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) does not like criticism of the IRA, he should shut up. Would not my right hon. Friend agree that the best way to dispel rumour and to have the truth is to set up a tribunal of inquiry, sitting in public, so that everyone in Northern Ireland and in the entire world will know who the guilty men are?

Mr. Whitelaw

On the question of the vehicle and the photograph, I simply stated the facts about it. Whether or not it exists—obviously it exists, because the photopraphs have been shown—I dislike it very much indeed. I will certainly do everything I can through the security forces to see that it is not there. But, as for when the photograph was published, I merely stated the facts as they were.

As for what my hon. Friend says about telephone calls to his home, I accept this. But if I were to tell the House about all the telephone calls received by my private office in Belfast or by myself, in Northern Ireland or here, from all sorts of people, I should be here for a very long time and the results would be totally inconclusive and would point in opposite directions. I appreciate that people in Northern Ireland like telephoning; I never knew quite how much until now.

As for inquiries, investigation of all these different allegations is properly for me. I undertake them, and I am determined to see that proper justice prevails in all these cases and that the full facts are known. That is my responsibility, and one which I must discharge.

Mr. Torney

In view of the appalling destruction of the Co-operative store and the putting out of work of 750 members of the trade union to which I belong, will the Secretary of State take some emergency steps to get that store operating again in, perhaps, some temporary buildings in order to ensure the services which the Co-operative movement can give in Northern Ireland and primarily some work, at least, for some of the 750 members of ASDAW who are now put out of work?

Mr. Whitelaw

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who makes a point I wish to underline. The achievements—I can say this myself, because they have only recently been gained—of the various departments of the Northern Ireland Civil Service in helping people to get premises put back and to get work going again under very difficult circumstances have been nothing short of remarkable. I pay that tribute to what they have done. My hon. Friend the Minister of State is, I understand, seeing people about this matter this weekend. We shall do everything that we can. When I emphasise to the House the problems occasioned by this bombing, the one thing in my mind all the time is that we should be able to rehabilitate the buildings concerned as soon as possible and to provide the employment again as soon as possible. I say to the House that those people who are trying to disrupt things by this action will not succeed.

Rev. Ian Paisley

First, may I associate myself with the remarks made about the condemnation of the torture that has been taking place in Northern Ireland? May I draw the right hon. Gentleman's attention to the fact that it is not just rumour that has been raised concerning the tragic death of Corporal Elliott, but that the relatives, his wife and family, have issued a public statement which was carried in the Press? They examined the body and saw these marks of torture upon it. Therefore, I am sure that the House will welcome the fact that the right hon. Gentleman is to make public the reports which will be presented to the coroner. But it should be put on record that this is not just a matter of rumour but a statement issued by the relatives of the deceased.

I welcome the fact that the finance corporation order will be tabled in the House. Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us about the public accountability for the money that will be made available and spent by this finance corporation, and what arrangements he is making about other public offices and their accountability? Will they be accountable to the Public Accounts Committee of the House? The Bill originally did not provide for any public accountability to the Public Accounts Committee at Stormont.

Has the right hon. Gentleman any information—[Interruption]—about a man who was kidnapped today and whose brother was shot during the kidnapping offence? Would the right hon. Gentleman also—[Interruption] I just want to say that it is because the business is brought before the House in this way that an hon. Member representing a Northern Ireland constituency finds himself in this difficult position. After all, as has been said, £10 million worth of damage was done and over 700 people have lost their jobs. Surely there should be some way of discussing these matters in the House.

Mr. Whitelaw

I think that the hon. Gentleman will accept that I have done my duty to the House in making this full statement today and answering questions which are very much wider, possibly—though that is not for me to say, Mr. Speaker than the basis of the original statement. As for the accountability of the finance corporation, we have made a change in the order, and that is, perhaps, one of the reasons for the short delay in introducing it. The finance corporation will now be directly accountable to the Comptroller and Auditor General in this country.

I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman says about Corporal Elliott. I have been extremely exercised about some of the stories I have heard, and by the feelings of the family, which I deeply respect. Much as I feel for these things, the House will agree that before I express any opinion I am bound to wait for the official report of the pathologist and the coroner's inquest. Whatever may be the views expressed, we must pay attention to what is officially put forward in these matters, and that is what I am seeking to do. I have no information to give the hon. Gentleman at this stage about the man who was kidnapped today.

Mr. George Cunningham

Can the right hon. Gentleman say whether the commodities that have now been brought under control in Northern Ireland are under control in the Republic? If they are not, will he have discussions with the Dublin authorities to see whether that would be possible? Will he give consideration to the desirability of bringing those same substances under control in this country?

Mr. Whitelaw

I must be careful to remain within my own responsibilities. I shall look into what the hon. Gentleman asks about the position in the Republic of Ireland. I do not know the answer, but I will find out about it. As for this country, I shall seek to consider the position with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and others who are most closely concerned, but I must face particularly the problem in Northern Ireland, which is where I obviously hope I shall achieve some success by the order.

Sir Gilbert Longden

While I believe it is true that the great majority in this House and in Great Britain support my right hon. Friend in the great efforts he is making to be as moderate as possible in his methods of dealing with these bestial thugs, may I ask him what cooperation he is receiving from the great majority of the people of Northern Ireland?

Mr. Whitelaw

I have been amazed at the correspondence which I have received from people in all quarters of Northern Ireland, of all shades of opinion, supporting the view that the approach we are making in all the very difficult circumstances is the right one. My postbag on this has been very remarkable. I do not disguise that there are those who do not agree with that approach, but there are a great many who do. I have had many expressions of opinion, of help—quite a large number of public expressions of help—from people in very difficult areas who are seeking to bring about reconciliation and stop the violence in those areas. These I also greatly welcome. The more of them I have, and the more I have in public, the better I am pleased. These movements are proceeding. Naturally I wish, as we all do, that they would have a quicker result, but we cannot change a long history of bitterness in a few weeks.


Mr. Crouch

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I raise with you the matter of the statements made this afternoon? The whole House recognises your generosity in allowing a lot of time for the statements on Northern Ireland and the rail crisis. May I point out that there is some dismay on the back benches, certainly there is in my own mind, that we did not have very long to deal with Northern Ireland. May I put it to you that there is a much wider interest in the Northern Ireland situation than there used to be and we would like even greater generosity from you in future?

Mr. Speaker

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman. This matter is under consideration. I am not in a position to say anything about it today, but I think it may well be that some arrangement will be made whereby more time can be given to these matters.