HC Deb 18 May 1972 vol 837 cc698-712
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. William Whitelaw)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the security situation in Northern Ireland.

At the start I should like to inform the House of the result of the further investigations made into the incident at Kelly's Bar since the statement which my hon. Friend the Minister of State made to the House on Monday. All the indications are that the bomb exploded prematurely whilst those intending to use it for a bomb attack elsewhere were either inside the bar or were returning to their vehicle from the bar. The facts do not support the theory that the bomb was planted by Protestant extremists.

The action taken by the Army to restore order after the incident and the subsequent cross-fire between the communities was extremely well carried out by the 1st Battalion of the Parachute Regiment. This locality has been quiet since the weekend. The action taken has shown the determination of the Government and the security forces to act firmly and effectively.

Since that incident there have been further terrorist actions in Belfast and Londonderry which suggest that the IRA is now desperately trying to provoke a Protestant reaction. The majority of the population of both communities are showing commendable restraint in all the circumstances. It must be said that they would be playing the terrorists' game if they allowed themselves to be provoked. But so long as they exercise restraint they are entitled to the fullest possible protection by the security forces, and I will see that they get it.

Equally, the Government and the security forces are entitled in their difficult task to the support and restraint of all responsible people. The initiative taken by the Government a few weeks ago represents, in their view, the only chance of bringing communal strife to an end and affording a sound basis for the twin policy of eradicating terrorism and the promotion of a peaceful settlement. It is understandable that those who disagreed with the initiative should continue to criticise it, but it is neither reasonable nor responsible for the critics to claim that the legacy of years of communal mistrust and division should be put right in a few weeks.

Finally, I can assure the House and the whole community in Northern Ireland that the Government will be completely resolute in their determination to end terrorism through the use of the security forces, but they will not be panicked or pushed into over-reaction which could well destroy the chances of communal peace.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

Is the Secretary of State aware that we note his view that the bomb at Kelly's Bar was not planted by Protestant extremists and it is important that this should be publicised? But has he noticed that it is not only the two communities who believe that their opposites are violently working against them? On Tuesday the Irish Times reported that the murders of Catholics with no motive but sectarianism were increasing in Belfast. The Times today reports the deliberate shooting of Protestants to provoke a backlash. It is important that the facts of this matter should be publicised. My reports support the theory about the provocation of the backlash. Is it not time the Secretary of State concentrated the minds of all groups in Northern Ireland by announcing local government proportional representation elections? This would be a challenge to the IRA to fight as a political party and see the extent of its real support. Its continuation of bombing is a sign of weakness.

Has the right hon. Gentleman noted that in Northern Ireland few in the actual areas concerned, particularly Belfast, give a lead against sectarianism? On the other hand, the SDLP, for example, has spoken out against violence to the point, perhaps, of endangering the lives of its members. Positive leadership from the majority and the minority is required if moderation is to win, and in recent weeks this has been lacking. Is the Secretary of State aware that we on this side support the aim of reconciliation and peace and repeat our commendation of the Army.

Finally, we welcome the fact that the right hon. Gentleman has taken the opportunity to make a statement today. We know that he is considering means of providing more time in this House through his right hon. Friend, and it matters that more time is made available for the discussion of Northern Ireland affairs in this House, bearing in mind that we have the sole democratic responsibility for affairs in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Whitelaw

In answer to the hon. Gentleman's question, I agree that it is most important in all these difficult cases to try to establish what were the facts, as opposed as to what inevitably become the rumours and, I fear, sometimes the myths. The facts I have stated are on the best possible evidence available to me from the security forces and the police.

On the second point, about concentrating the minds by local government elections on a proportional representation basis, I am considering all this. Naturally, I shall be very much in the hands of the House because there is legislation on this matter, which it is important to get through, inevitably on a rather tight timetable.

The question of time in the House is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Lord President. I am most anxious that I or one of my Ministers should make a statement to the House whenever the situation demands it. I shall always try to be here on Thursdays and make the necessary statements to the House. I hope that that will help the House in the consideration of the business, which I recognise at once the House has the responsibility for.

Captain Orr

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for what he said about business. We welcome periodic statements in the House. I regret any personal indignity that he suffered in my constituency this week. Had he told me he was going there, I might have arranged for his protection. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] On the serious question, is my right hon. Friend aware that the most dangerous ingredient in the Northern Ireland situation is the lack of confidence by the majority in order being restored? My right hon. Friend himself appealed for the silent majority to come forward, but is he aware that the silent majority at two elections recently by large majority elected persons to represent them, and that it does not give much confidence to the silent majority if the views of those elected representatives are set aside? We all wish my right hon. Friend well in his task of bringing about peace and order. If he will tell us what the political initiative is, we will willingly help him.

Mr. Whitelaw

I am grateful to my hon. and gallant Friend. I had, which did not seem to be very fully reported, a most interesting visit to my hon. Friend's constituency at Newry. I am sorry I did not advise him in advance, but I think he will understand the reasons for that. It is important for the House to appreciate some of the facts of my visit which were not publicised, because they are the important ones. The important fact was that I visited and met all the headmasters and headmistresses of all the schools of all denominations in Newry. I met them all together, and they discussed their problems together. They make sure that there is the greatest cooperation between them all. As an example of education conducted on a non-sectarian basis, although there are of course sectarian schools, it was extremely good. I wish a few more people had reported something which is of great importance in understanding the situation in Northern Ireland. I must congratulate my hon. and gallant Friend on what I found there in this instance.

As for the other action, I will simply say that there were no more than, I think, to be fair to them, 35 to 40 ladies, and, frankly, I have been given a much rougher reception at political meetings in this country than I had in my hon. and gallant Friend's constituency.

I accept what my hon. and gallant Friend said on the question of confidence. I am most anxious to work with all those concerned in finding the right political future for Northern Ireland. If I were to set down exactly what I thought before discussing these matters with the people of Northern Ireland I should be regarded as imposing a solution and being extremely dictatorial, and I have no desire to do that. I am most anxious to work with my hon. and gallant Friend, his hon. Friends and all those concerned in all parties to try to find a basis for the future.

Mr. Thorpe

Is the Secretary of State aware that the vast majority of right hon. and hon. Members understand and support what he is trying to achieve in Northern Ireland and that we believe that, whilst there is a complete right of criticism, those who are least justified in criticising him are those who have had responsibility for Northern Ireland in the past and have failed? Can he say when he is likely to be able to announce the appointment of the Commission? Since there are apparently to be local government elections, which could be the first stirring towards some form of partnership between the communities, but which are also fraught with great potential danger, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is very important that we consider the guidelines for those elections well in advance?

Mr. Whitelaw

On the right hon. Gentleman's first point, I am most anxious not to indulge in any recriminations of any sort about the past. As for his second point, I hope to announce the Advisory Commission next week. In reply to his third point, certainly I am anxious to discuss the guidelines. The problem I face with regard to local government elections and proportional representation is the time scale, which is very difficult. But I am prepared to lay all my problems in this regard before the House.

Sir H. Legge-Bourke

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that, while we fully realise the necessity for him to spend a great deal of each week in Northern Ireland, we are very anxious that he should never forget that it is not only the Ulster Members here who are gravely concerned about the matter? We all have a huge sympathy for the difficulty in which they find themselves. Whilst I entirely agree that we should avoid the danger of over-reacting when horrors take place, will my right hon. Friend recall those wise words said to Queen Elizabeth I by Sir Humphrey Gilbert: I hold it as lawful in Christian policie to prevent a mischief betimes as to revenge it too late"?

Mr. Whitelaw

I absolutely accept what my hon. Friend says about my time and my appearances in the House. My anxieties about the job I have and the situation which confronts me are probably as great as, and perhaps even greater than, those of most right hon. and hon. Members. If one bears my responsibility one has constant and desperate anxiety. I do not shrink from it, because that is what I took on. I accept what my hon. Friend says about preventing mischief in advance. In this situation I try to do the best that I believe to be right. I cannot guarantee anything to the House, because a situation such as confronts us in Northern Ireland is one which must be faced as extremely difficult and very dangerous.

Mr. Orme

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that most of us on this side will welcome the balanced statement that has has just made? But can he tell us how the examination of internment is going and when he expects to complete it? If internment could be ended fairly soon, with action taken in the courts against all those against whom the right hon. Gentleman feels it is necessary to take action but the rest released, could not negotiations take place with the whole community in Northern Ireland? That would in effect defuse the power of the IRA and allow normal political intercourse to take place within that country, which could help considerably with the right hon. Gentleman's present problems.

Mr. Whitelaw

It is very difficult for me to answer in detail the very complex problems and balance of problems that the hon. Gentleman puts before me on the subject of internment and political initiatives. I have released, on the best judgment available to me, more than 200 of those who were interned. In doing so in the current situation, I must be responsible for any risks involved, and I am. I take the best judgment I can in each case. The speed at which I can phase down internment, as was the policy in our initiative, must depend to a considerable extent on the level of violence which confronts me, and the risks therefore inherent in the situation. I must have regard to these matters. I take the hon. Gentleman's point, but I would also have to be assured of a complete response if I were to end internment in the way the hon. Gentleman has suggested, because unless it was a complete response, with a real end of violence, it would make the situation very difficult.

Mr. Maginnis

Is my right hon. Friend aware that most hon. Members representing Northern Ireland constituencies in this House are in great difficulty? Would it be possible for him to supply me with a brief so that I could explain to my constituents why before the initiative very little damage had been done in the county of Armagh and after the initiative very few areas are now clear of damage by the IRA?

Mr. Whitelaw

I fully appreciate all the difficulties which face my hon. Friends who represent constituencies in Northern Ireland, and I am most anxious to help them and work with them in any way I can. If my hon. Friend will give me details of the contention he makes about Armagh, I shall be very pleased to have them investigated by the security forces and see what can be done, but I should have the detailed facts to support the contention.

Mr. Peter Archer

I recognise that the Secretary of State is concerned to protect all groups in Northern Ireland, but does he recollect that on 23rd March the Home Secretary announced that there would be an inquiry into the allegations of illegalities against detainees mentioned in the Amnesty report, other than those inquired into by the Compton Inquiry? Is he in a position to say whether that investigation has taken place?

Mr. Whitelaw

I have also recently had various allegations made to me, and I am making investigations. I have given the strictest possible instructions that there can be no question of brutality in interrogations in the future.

Mr. Hastings

Does not my right hon. Friend think it lamentable that the Press and television of the world—for they are all there—seem to go out of their way to blow up any incident likely to exacerbate the situation but ignore or neglect any event likely to make for conciliation, such as my right hon. Friend's visit to the schools in Newry?

Mr. Whitelaw

It is never wise for politicians to criticise those who report the news. That is their job; they are responsible for deciding what is news and what should be reported. Whilst I must accept at once that violence is news, and that so long as violence continues it will be reported—and I cannot get away from that—all I hope is that sometimes if there is good news it might also achieve some prominence in the reports.

Mr. Fitt

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that most of the tragic events of last weekend took place in my constituency, where so many innocent people lost their lives? The right hon. Gentleman has said that he has information that it was an IRA bomb which was detonated outside Kelly's Bar. Can he give the House any indication of the reason why, within minutes of the explosion, there was a murderous crossfire from the Springmartin estate in which seven Catholic people were killed? There was also one young Protestant killed. I deeply deplore all those deaths, because they were all my constituents. Can the right hon. Gentleman give any indication why there is such an enormous build-up of arms on the Unionist political divide? Mr. Craig, ably supported by some hon. Members of this House, has threatened that if he does not get his own way he will resort to the use of arms in Northern Ireland. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that internment is still the greatest single issue which divides the minority population in Northern Ireland from active participation in any form of activity with the Government? Will he take my word that if and when internment is ended—and we want to see it ended as soon as possible—I and my party—and I believe I speak on behalf of the great majority of the minority in the Northern Ireland—will actively co-operate in every way to make sure that the initiative is a success?

Mr. Whitelaw

I understand on the evidence available to me that it was some 40 minutes after the explosion at Kelly's Bar before shots were fired from the Protestant area. I hesitate to say this to the hon. Gentleman, in whose constituency the incident occurred, but he will probably confirm that it is almost impossible from the Springmartin estate to shoot directly at Kelly's Bar, because of the ground. I should like to tell him how much I regret in any circumstances any deaths among his constituents. On the question of arms, it is almost silly to say it, but of course there are a great many arms in Northern Ireland or we should not have as much shooting as we have. I regret that there are so many arms, but they are arms on all sides.

As for the question of the ending of internment, I note what the hon. Gentleman says, and I am grateful to him for it. I hope, equally, that the evidence I have given of the phasing out might enable members of the community who have not felt able publicly to discuss matters with me to consider the possibility that soon it will be reasonable for them to do so, because I very much need to receive a response to some of the actions I have taken.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that on both sides of the fence in Northern Ireland there has been a wide welcome for his lifting of the ban on parades? Is he also aware that Members of the prorogued Stormont are receiving good service from those in Northern Ireland responsible for handling the day-to-day grievances brought to Members by constituents? Is he further aware that this is appreciated by the people of Northern Ireland?

Would the right hon. Gentleman like to tell the House that, while hon. Members must be absolutely fair and give credit where credit is due, it is also their right to bring to his attention as forcibly as they can matters that are disturbing their constituents? Would he make it clear to the House today—I do not want to enter into the pros and cons of the tragedy of the weekend—that the military and the police went into Spring-martin and made arrests and that consequently men have appeared in court from the Protestant estate charged with having arms, while there were no arrests whatever in the Ballymurphy area although the Army confirmed that 400 shots were fired from Ballymurphy into the Springmartin estate? Does he not feel that this should also be put on the record?

With regard to internment, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that political leaders, including Mr. William Craig, have been stating publicly that internees are going back to subversive activity in Northern Ireland? Has he any evidence of this, or have the gentlemen who have made these allegations laid before him any matters which he could investigate. It is vitally important that we should know what is happening to those who are released from internment.

Can the right hon. Gentleman give the House any information concerning the burning of Private Robert Harper, a member of the UDR, about whom it is reported in the Irish News—and for those hon. Members who do not read the Irish papers the Irish News is no Unionist paper; it is almost the official organ of the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt)—that his hands were burned by cigarettes? Will he have a full investigation of this since this man has told the Press that he is not allowed to speak?

Mr. Whitelaw

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Member for what he has said about the administration and the service to hon. Members raising their constituents' problems. My other Ministers and I will do everything we can to help by personal contact and in answer to correspondence. I hope that as my Department becomes more fully established the service we give will improve. I am sure that the House will appreciate the immense task of setting it up in the first instance.

On the point about the searches in Springmartin and Ballymurphy, there were searches carried out in both estates. In some of the searches arms were found; in others they were not. I am still investigating the exact details, and will look into this.

On the third point about the internees who have been released—I know that the hon. Gentleman was never one of those in favour of internment in the first place—of those who have been released, more than 200, one was arrested last Saturday in connection with an armed robbery, and he is at present in custody.

On the hon. Gentleman's last point about Private Harper, I will look into this case and satisfy myself about the facts.

Mr. Edward Short

The right hon. Gentleman said that he had met the head teachers at Newry, and I am delighted that he did. Would he take the trouble to look up the record of a conference also held in the constituency of the hon. and gallant Member for Down, South (Captain Orr) last year and organised by the Community Development Project at which I was present and in which I participated? If he reads this I think lie might feel that this kind of exercise would be worth repeating for people in other walks of life in the Province. It was a very useful contribution to intercommunal co-operation. Could I make an offer? If the right hon. Gentleman agrees to do this with anything involving the teaching profession, I would be only too delighted to offer my services and go there.

Mr. Whitelaw

I will certainly read what the right hon. Gentleman has said, and I am most grateful to him for the suggestion, which I will certainly take up. Perhaps I may add one point to what I said earlier. The head of the technical college in Newry was also there, and he made the point, which is not perhaps appreciated in this House, that technical college education in Northern Ireland has been non-sectarian for a considerable time. That fact ought to be known by some of the critics.

Mr. Redmond

May I, as one whose forebears spent many years in this House fighting for Home Rule for Ireland, assure my right hon. Friend that he has the sympathy and prayers of the vast majority of people, not only in the House but in the country, who hope that he will succeed in what he is doing? Would he confirm that if he were to seek a fully military solution to the problems of the "no-go" areas he would cause such fearful bloodshed as would set back the cause of peace for many years to come?

Mr. Whitelaw

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his good wishes, and I am interested in the cause which his family used to espouse. As to what he said about the special case of the Bogside and Creggan, I am bound to agree with him. I should make what I believe to be the position perfectly clear. It would be possible at a cost, possibly a considerable cost, to go in. But, of course, going in is only the first part of the problem. Having gone in, one has to stay there, in terms of guerrilla warfare, for a considerable time. This would, quite apart from the casualties, set back the affairs of Northern Ireland for a considerable time. Having said that, I must also say that I am not prepared in any way to accept the present situation, and I will certainly seek to end it as soon as I possibly can. I understand that there are persons who think that my attitude in this matter is one that lacks courage. I am bound to say that I greatly resent that accusation because I believe it is not a question of courage; it is simply a question of a commonsense approach to the whole future.

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

Mr. Duffy

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that hon. Members of good will recognise that the legacy of years of neglect in Northern Ireland cannot, as he says, be put right in a few weeks? Is he aware that we devoutly hope that he will continue to pursue his present policies? May I say how much I welcome what he has said about his refusal to turn the Bogside into another Warsaw Ghetto massacre? It cannot last. Of course this must be brought to an end, but only by pursuing policies of peace and reconciliation. Is he quite sure that these policies may not be discounted by Army and police methods of interrogation? Is he aware that, despite what he has said to my hon. Friends, these methods are still continuing? Is he aware that according to the Sunday Times of 7th May there is a wealth of evidence that there is still something radically wrong?

Mr. Whitelaw

I must at once make it clear that I am not prepared, before investigations, to accept allegations about the devoted work of the police and others who in the present circumstances serve me. I must have everything investigated before I respond to allegations of any kind. I have made my position about the future perfectly clear. As for the position in the difficult areas, I can only add that, while I have made my position perfectly clear, patience in these matters cannot be inexhaustible because it is, clearly, important that these areas be returned to democratic rule. It is important we should achieve that, and I fully accept the impatience of many people who are worried about the present situation.

Mr. Stratton Mills

Is my right hon. Friend aware that I welcome very much this clear recognition that the aim of the IRA is to encourage the population to engage in retribution? Is he further aware that I strongly support his plea for restraint by looking to my right hon. Friend for the protection of the people which he has promised us once more in his statement? Is he further aware that, leaving aside for the moment the question of the "no-go" areas, the real danger lies with the areas of disengagement and low-profile Army activity where over a large area of Northern Ireland the IRA is being enabled to regroup and re-form? Does he appreciate that this gives rise to a very grave threat for a period just a little way off, and that I warn him of this now?

Mr. Whitelaw

On my hon. Friend's first point, I am grateful for what he has said. I should make it clear that the security forces will do everything in their power to provide the protection which those who exercise restraint have the undoubted right to receive. No security force can guarantee any country complete and absolute protection at all times, but everything that can possibly be done to ensure this will be done. As to the question of disengagement, I make it clear to my hon. Friend and those like him who are worried on this score that I am not prepared to see areas established in Belfast, which I know is his concern, where IRA activity becomes prominent and seems to be establishing itself in a dominant position. I am simply not prepared to have that, and I will take the necessary steps to see that it does not occur.

Mr. Kilfedder

Would my right hon. Friend tell us who has accused him of lacking in courage, because I am not aware of it and I would certainly not approve of such a thing? Is lie aware that, although there is much to criticise about the restraints which the political initiative has placed upon the Army, the people in my constituency would wish to congratulate the paratroops on their swift, speedy and successful action in curtailing the ever-growing, ever-spreading influence and thuggery of the Irish Republican Army? Can he give us the information which I have asked for before about the torture and mutilation of soldiers, police and, I believe, civilians by the IRA, and can he give it to us now? Is he aware that, like him, what the people of Northern Ireland want is the truth, and that we should put an end to the rumours being spread around? Can he say something to the people in my former constituency of Belfast, West, who have appealed to me to speak to him about the people who suffered from the bomb explosion yesterday in Roden Street and the three men and a woman who were shot and wounded as they left their factory? Can he do something to protect these decent people?

Mr. Whitelaw

No one in this House has accused me of lacking in courage. But I think I am entitled to say that I have been so accused in view of my postbag, which is fairly considerable, from a wide variety of people in different parts of the country. I must tell my hon. Friend that some of these letters accuse me of lacking in courage. But none of those who know me in this House has done so.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he said about the paratroops and what they did, and I agree with him. I have already answered the point about curtailing IRA activities. I intend to seek to ensure that that happens. I will look very carefully indeed into cases where torture is alleged.

My hon. Friend also referred to his past constituents of West Belfast following the bomb incident and the shooting of persons coming from their work at Machie's factory. I hope that he will express my deep sympathy to those concerned. I must make the position clear. The Army maintains a permanent post in the Springfield Road to provide protection for Machie's factory. In addition, a mobile patrol is used exclusively for a 700-yard stretch of the Springfield Road. It is constantly on patrol but moves at irregular intervals. It is clear that the shooting took place when the patrol, as one might expect, was at the opposite end of its move. I have had representations from Machie's on this matter. Immediately after the incident I asked my hon. Friend the Minister of State to go at once to the factory to see the management and ensure that the liaison about protection there was put right for the future, and I very much hope that it will be.

Mr. McMaster

Is my right hon. Friend aware that a matter which has already been raised in questions about education is perhaps one of the fundamental causes of the trouble in Northern Ireland? Will he do what he can to end segregation of education and religious discrimination practised by certain schools in recruiting their teachers? Will he also ensure that he does not use words like "relentless pursuit of terrorists" when he was not prepared, in an area like Ballymurphy, to follow up terrorists who fired heavily into the Protestant area, arrest those responsible and try to recover the arms which had been used in this unprovoked attack upon the Protestant community?

Mr. Whitelaw

It is very important to appreciate that church schools not only in Northern Ireland but in this country, too, are a matter of freedom of conscience and freedom of choice. It is very important to accept that. In describing what happened at Newry and elsewhere, I was trying to emphasise that the more drawing together there is at various stages of education, the more children get together in games and other activities outside education, the very much better it is for all concerned.

I assure my hon. Friend that the Army did go into the Ballymurphy area, did dominate it, did make searches and did make clear that it was not prepared to tolerate the shooting from that area towards the Springmartin estate. The evidence of that is that the area has been quiet since the weekend and has been dominated by the security forces. It is clear that the terrorists were pursued, and they will continue to be pursued.