HC Deb 29 November 1972 vol 847 cc419-24

Rev. Ian Paisley (by Private Notice) asked the Minister of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the IRA rocket attacks on the Crown forces, RUC stations and installations in Northern Ireland yesterday.

The Minister of State for Defence (Mr. Ian Gilmour)

In a series of rocket launcher attacks yesterday terrorists fired a total of 15 rockets at 10 different targets in Northern Ireland. I regret to inform the House that in one attack, on the police station at Belleek, one RUC constable was killed. Seven soldiers were injured in two of the incidents, fortunately none seriously. There was some structural damage, mainly of a minor nature, in eight of the incidents. Although all the attacks were undoubtedly vicious in their intent, the one made upon the Finniston School in Belfast was particularly contemptible. Mercifully no one was hurt. With permission, I will circulate full details in the OFFICIAL REPORT.

The House will also be interested to know that at 4.50 p.m. yesterday a car travelling down Osborne Street in Londonderry stopped on being confronted by a security force Land-Rover, and the occupants ran away. A rocket launcher and rocket of Warsaw Pact design were found in the car.

Investigations are continuing and no effort will be spared by the security forces to bring to account those responsible for these further despicable attacks on the community in Northern Ireland.

I have also just heard that there was a further rocket attack in Belfast earlier this afternoon. It was against the Army post at Flax Street Mill. Fortunately there were no casualties.

Rev. Ian Paisley

While expressing sympathy with the relatives of Constable Robert Keys and Gunner Paul Jackson who were victims of IRA attacks yesterday, may I ask the Minister whether he agrees that the concentration of such attacks adds a new dimension to the IRA terrorist campaign? Can the Minister confirm the first reports made by the Army authorities who were able to get one of these rocket launchers that the weapon was made in a Communist country in Eastern Europe?

Is it not a fact that an announcement has been made about the withdrawal of 1,000 troops from Northern Ireland? In view of the attacks made yesterday, will the Minister assure the people of Northern Ireland that there will be no rundown of the Army in Northern Ireland whilst the terrorist campaign is escalating in this way?

Can the Minister of State give the House an assurance that in future local intelligence will be employed by the Army so that the deplorable happening in Old Park, to which he referred, which took place from a vacant house in the Army control area, will never occur again? Will he assure the House that these houses will be put under surveillance by the Army authorities when they are vacant, and will he draw the attention of his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs to the fact that one attack was mounted from south of the border? Will he press his right hon. Friend to pursue the matter with Mr. Lynch's Government?

Mr. Gilmour

I am sure that the whole House will join the hon. Gentleman in expressing sympathy with the relatives of those who were killed and injured yesterday. I agree with him that the scale of these rocket attacks introduces a new dimension although, as he will be aware, rockets have been used in Northern Ireland before, notably in August and September 1971. I confirm what I said in my original answer, namely, that it is our belief that the rocket launcher that was found is of Warsaw Pact origin.

On the question of withdrawal, the level of our forces in Northern Ireland is kept under continuous review by the Government, and the right level of forces is determined. We do all in our power to improve local intelligence and, as the hon. Gentleman knows, this has greatly improved in recent months.

Mr. Hattersley

May I first associate the Opposition with the expressions of sympathy for the relatives of the men killed yesterday and the soldiers who were casualties in yesterday's outrage?

Next may I express the Opposition's concern at what must be described as a further escalation of hostilities in Northern Ireland and, in the light of what has happened, may I ask two specific questions. First, will the Minister look carefully at the outcome of the announcement made yesterday that a substantial number of British troops are to be withdrawn from Northern Ireland in the next few days? In the light of what has happened and, indeed, in the light of what may happen on both sides of the border, many people believe that this may not be the best time for withdrawing troops. If the Minister feels that he wants to alter the steps announced yesterday, may I tell him that he will receive no criticism from the Opposition for doing so?

The Minister described the rocket launcher that was found as being of Warsaw Pact design. Can its origin be more carefully and closely specified than that? If it can, may we have an assurance that the ambassadors of any countries which are demonstrably supplying arms to Northern Ireland will be summoned by the Foreign Secretary in the immediate future and told that they must take whatever steps they can to stop that from happening?

Mr. Gilmour

The answer to the hon. Gentleman's first question is that we keep the level of our forces under continuous review.

The answer to the hon. Gentleman's second question is that the fragments of the rockets used and the one recovered are being examined. It appears to be an RPG7, which is a rocket type anti-tank weapon manufactured in several Warsaw Pact countries and supplied to various forces outside the Warsaw Pact. As the hon. Gentleman and the House will realise, the country of origin of this weapon is not necessarily the country of supply.

Mr. Rose

Will the hon. Gentleman accept that all those on this side of the House who have been concerned with affairs in Northern Ireland deplore this further escalation of mindless violence? Will he accept that this ultimately must make reconciliation in that area far more difficult?

With regard to the border attacks, will the hon. Gentleman confirm that the IRA forces withdrew when forces of the Irish Republic appeared on the scene? Does the hon. Gentleman feel that there is adequate communication between this country and the Republic with regard to border incidents and incursions, from whichever side they may come?

Mr. Gilmour

I am sure that the House will agree with the hon. Gentleman's opening remarks. There is a good deal of co-operation with the Republic, and this has improved recently. Of course we should, in due course, wish for more.

Captain Orr

May I press my hon. Friend on the intelligence point? What I think disturbs public opinion at the moment is that people seem to have been taken by surprise by the scale of this new type of attack. What steps are being taken to strengthen intelligence, particularly to determine how these pretty substantial weapons got into the country, either north or south?

Mr. Gilmour

I do not accept the implication of my hon. and gallant Friend's question that there has been a failure of intelligence in this matter. As I said earlier, our intelligence has improved, but it obviously is not possible for us to be continuously aware of every development that takes place throughout Ireland.

Mr. Goodhart

Is it thought that many more of these rockets are still in terrorist hands?

Mr. Gilmour

We feel that that is probably so, but our information is not certain.

Mr. Stratton Mills

In relation to the attack on the Army post at Finniston School in the Old Park Road, are my hon. Friend and the House aware that a rocket head hit a wall, but fortunately did not explode, 30 yards from 200 schoolchildren? Would the House reflect what kind of human beings could do such a thing? Second, would my hon. Friend consider whether, in the border areas, it would be possible to develop some form of joint communication system with the Southern Irish Army, so as to enable them to get on the scene very promptly?

Mr. Gilmour

On the first question, what my hon. Friend says is perfectly true. It is extraordinarily lucky that many children were not killed in this contemptible attack. We have telephonic communication with the Garda and we are examining the possibility of improving our communications.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. I understand the anxiety of hon. Members on this matter, but I must move on.

Following is the information:

1. 9.35 a.m.—Belleek RUC Station

One rocket passed through a ¾-inch armour plating in front of a window killing a RUC Constable. Two hundred small arms rounds were fired subsequently at the station from across the border. Security forces returned fire until the Irish Army arrived at 10 a.m.

2. 11 a.m.—Bunciana Road Vehicle Check Point

Two rockets were fired at the vehicle check point where troops were investigating a burning lorry. In a subsequent cross-border engagement over 1,000 rounds were exchanged. One hit was claimed by security forces.

3. 11.15 a.m.—Finniston School, Belfast

One rocket passed through the outer perimeter wire and hit the main building but caused minimal damage.

4. 11.30 a.m.—Strabane RUC Station

Two rockets passed through an outer wall, over the head of a policeman, and embedded themselves in an inside wall. Damage was considerable but was confined to the upper floor. Shots were also fired at the station. It is thought that the rockets were fired from inside the town.

5. 12.20 p.m.—Crossmaglen RUC Station

Two rockets were fired at the station from south of the border. Both struck the roof and shrapnel from one slightly injured an Army officer. Some 30 rounds were also fired.

6. 12.29 p.m.—Falls Road, Belfast

A practice rocket was fired at a Saracen from Peel Street. It missed and passed through a 12-inch thick wall.

7. 6.05 p.m.—HQ 3 Infantry Brigade, Lurgan

Two rockets were fired at the Lurgan factory, in which HQ 3 Brigade is situated. Two separate rocket launchers were used, one rocket travelling through a bus before hitting a four-ton vehicle and exploding. There were six casualties from shrapnel. The second rocket missed the building.

8. 6.10 p.m.—Albert Street Mill, Belfast

One rocket was fired at the mill from the area of a local factory. A hole 1 foot 6 inches in diameter was made in the roof near an observation post but there were no casualties.

9. 7.00 p.m.—Pomeroy RUC Station

A rocket was fired at the station but there were no casualties. Four sentries opened fire but no hits were claimed.

10. 7.45 p.m.—Lisnaskea RUC Station

Two rockets hit the front of the station and penetrated to a waiting room, causing minor damage. Twenty rounds were also fired into the station from a passing car. There were no casualties.