HC Deb 05 February 1973 vol 850 cc29-33
Mr. McMaster

(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement about the violence last weekend in Northern Ireland.

The Minister of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. David Howell)

Since 7 a.m. on Friday morning, 12 persons have been killed and many injured in the city of Belfast. Six were killed during a major battle between the security forces and IRA gunmen in the New Lodge area on Saturday night. On this occasion a total of 189 rounds were fired at the security forces, who returned 168 rounds. There were no casualties among the security forces. Six men have been found murdered and there have been other attempted murders.

Throughout the weekend, there have been a number of shooting, bombing and stoning incidents. The House will wish to pay tribute to the courage and skill of the explosive experts of the security forces who, on Saturday, defused a bomb in a petrol tanker containing 4,000 gallons of petrol, which had been hijacked and left in the city centre.

The whole House will, I know, wish to extend its sympathy to the bereaved and injured, and to condemn utterly this senseless and savage violence.

Mr. McMaster

May I, first, join with my hon. Friend in expressing sympathy to the relatives of all those who have been killed.

Is my hon. Friend aware that the terrible death toll of the past weekend brings the total death roll to over 700 people, including 200 members of Her Majesty's forces, police and reserves in the past three years as a result of terrorist activity by the IRA, activity deliberately and openly pursued by the IRA? Is my hon. Friend also aware that all the concilliatory measures which have been taken by the Government, including the disarming of the police, the disbandment of the B-Specials and even the suspension of Stormont, have not brought these activities to an end?

The public in Northern Ireland are totally unable to understand why the IRA is not declared an illegal body throughout the United Kingdom, so that guidance may be given to the Press and television authorities, who feel it their duty to publish the propaganda of the IRA. Will my hon. Friend give first priority in these circumstances to restoring democratic institutions in Northern Ireland? Will he also take immediate steps to protect peaceful people of every religion, class and creed in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Howell

I understand my hon. Friend's worry and concern at the appalling level of deaths and of violence. Frankly, I do not think at this stage that charges and counter-charges about responsibility will help the situation very much. In fact, they may even make it worse.

As to the IRA being made illegal throughout the United Kingdom, that is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

Is the Minister aware that we on the Opposition side of the House believe firmly that the responsibility for Northern Ireland, in the security aspect which worries all of us on both sides of the House, rests firmly on this House and in the hands of the Government? Will the Minister assure the House that the Government will act firmly against all those, from whatever part of the community they come, who indulge in murder, whether sectarian or otherwise, whatever its source?

The Opposition believe still that it is vital to deal with the number of guns in Northern Ireland and that while there are so many guns around there is bound to be the sort of thing that happened last weekend. We wish to associate ourselves with the tribute to the bravery of the explosives experts who went to deal with the particular event last weekend and with the condolences to the relatives of those who died.

Finally, will the Minister assure the House that the Government, despite the happening of the weekend, will work to a political programme, including elections, as soon as legislation is through the House, as we still believe that there is no military solution to the problem of Northern Ireland and that political action will have to be the way through which we work. As we hear that there is shortly to be an election in the South of Ireland, very quickly we hope that free elections to a new assembly, in which both communities will be able to work together, will be announced for the North of Ireland.

Mr. Howell

I am glad to give the hon. Gentleman the emphatic assurance, if it is needed again, that it is the Government's aim to be totally impartial in the pursuit of justice and in the application of the law to extremists on both sides, and in the hunting out of men of violence from wherever they come. Whatever may be said, I believe that that is demonstrated by the number of arrests. At the weekend there were 40 arrests by the security forces, of which 12 were known members of the IRA and six were known Protestant extremists. It is borne out by the heavy sentences and the number of convictions secured over the last months. This is the token of the impartiality which is the centrepiece of Government policy.

As for guns, my right hon. Friend said on Thursday last that he will look at this matter, providing that it is a common ground, as I think it is, that the special situation of shotguns and guns for self-protection of the security forces, and a few others, is accepted.

As for working towards our objective of reaching a situation where politics can be resumed, this remains the overriding and, indeed, the only possible objective.

Sir Gilbert Longden

Have the Government considered whether it would be wise to proclaim martial law or, at least, a curfew in those murder-ridden cities?

Mr. Howell

I do not think at this stage that such a proposal would be helpful or realistic. The main aim has been to create a situation in which we can move forward towards politics and away from the bullet and violence.

Mr. John Mendelson

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Secretary of State has received the full support of the House in his actions against the IRA. Is it not now equally incumbent upon the Secretary of State to take action against all para-military organisations, particularly if he wants us to advance into the field of political action? Are not these murders committed upon young teenagers designed to intimidate one part of the population so that they should not appear to claim their political rights after the publication of the White Paper? Does not this create a new situation in which all para-military organisations should be removed by the Government?

Mr. Howell

The Government have always made clear that they deplore utterly the growth of para-military organisations. But the question of taking action, which is easy to talk about in the House, has to be matched on the ground against the danger of provoking circumstances in which many more lives would be lost. The Government agree entirely that the growth of these paramilitary organisations is to be strongly deplored, but the question of taking action is a lot easier put into words than it is in practice on the ground.

Captain Orr

Is my hon. Friend aware that everybody in Ulster who values law and order and the rule of law will appreciate very much indeed the success that the security forces had over the weekend and will in particular endorse what has been said about the great gallantry of those who prevented the explosion of the petrol tanker?

Will my hon. Friend tell my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that we shall support any measures that are taken, however irksome, that will help to bring the scale of violence, bloodshed and murder to an end, but will he also be careful not to be panicked into measures which might increase tension rather than reduce it, particularly in the light of his statement the other day that no legally held arms could be found to be connected with any outbreak of any kind?

Mr. Howell

I am grateful to my hon. and gallant Friend for what he said about the gallantry of the security forces. I take note of what he said about security measures. He is correct in saying that we must keep this matter in perspective and that, whatever else happens, we must not be panicked into measures which the whole House would later regret.

Mr. Russell Johnston

The Minister will be well aware that on both sides of the House it is felt to be absolutely essential that the security forces should behave with total impartiality between the two extremes. Is the hon. Gentleman satisfied that the security forces, faced with this extra growth of sectarian violence, are adequate in the face of duress? Second, does he not agree that we are getting beyond the stage of saying, "We made exceptions about shotguns and exceptions about so-and-so" and that it is reaching the situation where all arms ought to be proscribed?

Mr. Howell

I am totally satisfied that the impartiality of the security forces is complete and that, to put it mildly, their difficulties from both sides are certainly equal, as anyone serving in the security forces must know all too well. As for guns, I repeat that my right hon. Friend said that he would consider this matter again. There are difficulties about shotguns. Surely the hon. Gentleman cannot be suggesting that shotguns should be removed from those in lonely country areas. There is also the question of pistols given to those in the security forces for personal protection. These are difficult issues which cannot be dealt with sweepingly.

Sir D. Walker-Smith

The Opposition Front Bench spokesman drew a contrast between military measures and long-term political measures. Is not the more immediate need to achieve an intermediate status for the enforcement of the rule of law and the protection of lives and liberties through civil machinery?

Will my hon. Friend reiterate the determination of the Government to assist in reaching that stage as soon as possible, but meanwhile will he accept that all thinking and moderate people in this country and, I am sure, elsewhere will support the Government and the security forces in their unenviable task of seeking to protect lives and liberty and maintaining order in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Howell

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for what I believe people will recognise to be wise counsel and I am grateful for the support he reiterates.