HC Deb 08 February 1973 vol 850 cc646-55
Mr. Merlyn Rees

(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whether he will make a statement on the strike in Northern Ireland yesterday and on the consequent security situation.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. William Whitelaw)

A one-day strike was called in Northern Ireland yesterday by various Protestant organisations. This particularly affected Belfast, where most of industry closed down, bus services were stopped, and electricity supplies were severely cut. There was widespread intimidation.

In the course of the day there was a number of serious shooting incidents and riots. Some of these were inter-sectarian; in others the security forces came under fire from Catholic and Protestant gunmen. There were five deaths. Three were gunmen shot by the security forces, the fourth was a fireman on duty shot by a gunman, and the body was found of a civilian who had previously been abducted. Several civilians were injured and two soldiers were wounded, one of them very seriously.

In East Belfast some of the rioting was extremely violent. A mob of 1,200 wrecked a Catholic Church and the priest's house. They were dispersed with batons. Barricades were erected in a number of Protestant areas in Belfast by the UDA and Tartan gangs.

In Belfast and elsewhere, the security forces arrested and are charging 68 people —18 for riotous behaviour, 31 for disorderly conduct, 10 for burglary, five with possession of explosives and weapons, and four for taking and driving away cars. I should like to pay tribute to the brave and strenuous efforts made yesterday by all members of the security forces to control the violence.

By this morning, the situation had improved. Electricity supplies had been restored, and normal working had been resumed. All barricades have been removed.

The responsibility for yesterday's catalogue of violence rests squarely on those who called the strike and who should have appreciated the risks involved.

Mr. Rees

The right hon. Gentleman has given us details of yesterday's events. The Opposition wish to be associated with the tribute paid by the Secretary of State to the security forces, and I wish to mention with great regret the fireman who was killed. The firemen of Northern Ireland have shown unsung courage in the face of the campaign of bombing.

It appears that yesterday the security forces adopted a low profile posture. Could the right hon. Gentleman confirm that this was his policy? In view of the shooting that took place, may I ask whether the security forces were too little in evidence to deal with those who were prepared to use violence, as in the case of the church in East Belfast?

The Secretary of State mentioned intimidation, and this was a major factor in yesterday's events. I wish to inform him that I was telephoned this morning with a complaint that even when workers attended at power stations, because of intimidation to the management, some of the power generated was not fed into the grid.

In regard to the so-called strike, has the right hon. Gentleman noticed the firmness of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, which is organised from this country, and which has said: The NIC of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions has consistently opposed all forms of industrial action and strikes motivated for party political and sectarian ends. A further complaint was made to me this morning from Belfast that words such as those I have quoted and the words of other moderates in Northern Ireland were not given very much publicity, but that the words of Mr. Herron were on each hourly broadcast of the BBC—and, in effect, it was put to me that the BBC organised the strike. This may have been inadvertent, but it must be stressed that moderation in Northern Ireland needs publicity.

Will the Secretary of State make it clear that full security measures will be taken on the day when the White Paper appears and that its timing will not be signalled well in advance, as is usual and proper in other instances? Will he also make clear that the Government are not prepared to see the White Paper sabotaged by Craig and his lieutenants? It should be made clear to them that brinkmanship will not suffice next time round. A political solution needs the moderates who are in the majority, but yesterday's events show that, unless there is full security protection, the moderates cannot speak freely.

Mr. Whitelaw

I am extremely grateful for what the hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees) said and for the way in which he said it. I join him in deeply regretting the death of the fireman and the many other casualties. The Fire Service in Northern Ireland has done an outstanding job throughout this period.

I say categorically that there was no low profile approach by the security forces but very much the reverse. If the security forces had not been fully deployed throughout the Province, and particularly in Belfast, then the situation might have been very much worse. What must be made clear is that it is impossible to ensure security at every place at all times in every situation. That is inevitably a fact of life. Nevertheless, there was no low profile approach on the part of the security forces.

I, too, have heard the rumour to which the hon. Gentleman referred about the power stations and the grid. I shall look into this point. It is of great importance.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the firmness of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. I, too, pay tribute to what it has said. It has made its position abundantly clear on many occasions, and I support it fully. It takes the view that strikes for purely political or sectarian ends can be no part of trade union policy. The Congress has said that firmly and it is to be admired for it. I hope that it will be given every support. I believe that it would have received more support but for the intimidation which was all too evident in too many quarters yesterday.

The hon. Gentleman then spoke about the need for publicity for the moderates. This is a dangerous area for me of all people to stray into though, like many others, I have done my best in recent days to appear as often as possible in order to utter calming statements, as I am sure the House would wish, and to make it clear that the strike was wholly unnecessary in that apparently it was called originally because two people were detained under the Detention of Terrorists Order. It should be made clear that they have the right to have their cases heard before the Commissioners, that they have the right to be represented by a lawyer and that they have a right of appeal. I am not entitled to prejudge the result of the case I decided to put before the Commissioners, and I do not see why anyone else should be. Everyone should await the result of the case, when it is put forward.

As for there being too much publicity for extremist points of view, I have no doubt that the point will be noted by those responsible. I think that it is very important that the moderate voice should be heard. It is unreasonable to single out some from the others; however, I mention only two examples. It may be that many hon. Members heard, as I did, responsible views from Mr. Faulkner. There was also one from Mr. Bleakley broadcast this morning. Both urged moderation and were entirely against the strike. Tribute should be paid to all those who have voiced similar views.

With regard to proposed security measures at the time of the White Paper, I note what the hon. Gentleman says and I appreciate the point.

I end by saying, as I have said before, that the Government and this House—because this House is involved as much as anyone else—must not be deterred by violence and threats from whatever quarter they may come.

Mr. McMaster

May I first express sympathy with the relatives of those killed and injured yesterday and say how much I deplore the use of violence? There can be no excuse for the rioting and other activities in Northern Ireland yesterday. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to protect the vast majority of law-abiding people, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, who have suffered so much at the hands of terrorists and extremists in Northern Ireland? Is my right hon. Friend aware that when strikes such as yesterday's and other demonstrations are called, if they are not properly controlled by the security forces they can do nothing to improve community relations and only make it more difficult to achieve the reconciliation which is essential if we are to return to normal life in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Whitelaw

I fully appreciate what my hon. Friend says. I hope that neither he nor anyone else in Northern Ireland will place all the responsibility on the security forces. There is, after all, a very great responsibility on the citizens of Northern Ireland themselves. They have to play their part in this. The security forces will do their utmost to control all the demonstrations and marches which some people appear to find it necessary to conduct. One is entitled to ask whether they are all really necessary and whether their aims could not be achieved by less violent means than they seem to think necessary. If we in this House and the rest of the United Kingdom are to provide protection for citizens of the United Kingdom, which the people of Northern Ireland are, we are entitled to say, "While we will do everything in our power to help you with our security forces, if you are citizens of the United Kingdom you must do all you can in return to help the security forces and not make their task more difficult."

Mr. Douglas

Will the Secretary of State accept the view that if it is necessary he will seek to strengthen the security forces in Northern Ireland? Despite the political difficulties, does the right hon. Gentleman accept that we shall keep troops in Northern Ireland so long as it is part of the United Kingdom and so long as there is civil unrest there?

Mr. Whitelaw

On behalf of Her Majesty's Government I can give that undertaking absolutely. We believe that this House has a duty to the people of the United Kingdom as a whole. The people of Northern Ireland are part of the United Kingdom so long as the majority so desire. That brings with it responsibilities as well as rights, and it is very important to stress that. Force levels are constantly under consideration in the light of the security situation and will remain so.

Mr. Stratton Mills

In deploring these events and recalling that in November and December I warned the House of the damage which could be done by the activities of those with the Vanguard mentality, is not it tragically apparent at the moment that the activities of the Vanguard movement and those who have led and joined in these disturbances and in yesterday's strike have done more damage to Ulster in one day than the IRA has done in one month? In the event of a repetition of this kind of broad general strike, are there any methods that my right hon. Friend can take to prevent intimidation and assist in the maintenance of public services?

Mr. Whitelaw

Taking my hon. Friend's first point, I am bound to agree with him that the damage done to Northern Ireland and to all the efforts that Her Majesty's Government are making with the generous support of this House to help the employment position in Northern Ireland have been gravely frustrated by these events. No one should be in any doubt about that. Those who decided to go on with the strike should have appreciated the consequences of their own actions. I agree with my hon. Friend. I very much hope that those concerned will agree with him.

As for action on future occasions of this sort, which I pray will not occur, naturally I shall have a very careful study made of all the implications of yesterday's events to sec where plans can be made for the future. But I hope that they will not be necessary because I trust that, this having happened, a great many people will realise the desperate damage that they will do to their own country if they allow this kind of thing to happen again.

Mr. Molloy

Will the Secretary of State undertake to look again at the possibility of establishing a peace council in Northern Ireland drawn from all political parties and creeds? There seems to be evidence now that people of Northern Ireland, whether they be Catholic or Protestant and whatever their political views, want to identify themselves with a new loyalty to bring peace to Northern Ireland and do not want to be compelled to support extremists of any kind?

Mr. Whitelaw

There is no question of my reconsidering it; I am prepared to consider any proposals to help any movements of this kind. There are many people who are seeking to work in these ways. It is right that any move should come from them. They will get any encouragement that they need from me.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Does the Secretary of State agree that the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland deplore what took place yesterday in Northern Ireland? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the vast majority of workers were almost compelled to take part in the strike because power and electricity supplies were cut off and, consequently, when many turned up for work they were told by their managements that their places of employment had come to a standstill in any event? Can the right hon. Gentleman say whether it is right that the Republican Clubs of Northern Ireland and the Roman Catholic Ex-Servicemen's Association appealed to their supporters to join the strike? Is not it right to say that the trouble was sparked off by the detention of two members of the UDA? Is not it strange that the people who called so vigorously for internment when it was applied solely to one section of the community have risen up in wrath when it has been applied to another section of the community?

Would the right hon. Gentleman not agree that it is better that they be detained rather than interned because under a detention order they have an opportunity of legal representation whereas those who were interned had no opportunity of hearing what was alleged against them or of making out a case? Will he assure the House that so far as he is concerned all men in Northern Ireland will be equal under the law and will be equally subject to the law?

Mr. Whitelaw

I am grateful for what the hon. Member said. As for the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland deploring the strike, I believe that he is in a better position than I fully to judge the feelings of many people. I entirely agree from my information that it is the case. There is absolutely no doubt that there was widepsread intimidation. There were those who would have worked if power and other supplies had been available. I do not know about the Republican clubs. I heard a statement from the Catholic Ex-Servicemen's Association—somewhat ambivalent—apparently supporting the strike.

Having exercised my judgment and decided that there was a case for these two men to answer before the Commissioners, I am clearly prohibited from commenting one way or the other on the reasons for the strike and what these people may or may not have been. To me they were two men, I studied their cases, and my best judgment was that it was right for the cases to be put before the Commissioners. The Commissioners may decide after a legal hearing that I was right or that I was wrong. I am prepared to put my judgment to that test and to accept the verdict, as is perfectly proper. Everyone else should be prepared to take the same course. I must make it clear that everyone in Northern Ireland must be equal under the law and that no one must be above the law nor must they imagine that they above the law.

Mr. Orme

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that yesterday's strike has no relation to British trade unionism as we understand it and that it is to be deplored? Is he aware that the trade union movement thoroughly deplores any actions taken in a sectarian manner by some people in Northern Ireland? Turning to the Vanguard movement and the para-military forces in Northern Ireland, may I ask whether he is aware that the feeling is growing that there will have to be tackled sooner rather than later and that these para-military forces will have to be put aside? Just as the IRA has been faced up to, so must these forces be faced and their guns removed and the security forces must be enabled to maintain full control of all areas.

Mr. Whitelaw

I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman said, with his considerable experience of British trade unionism. It is vitally important that we make clear to everyone in Northern Ireland that it will be properly governed under the law and that the security forces will be in control throughout.

Captain Orr

Is my right hon. Friend aware that all rational and reasonable people in Ulster, who are in the majority, will endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) said about deploring violence, intimidation, murder and destruction? Is he further aware that the only way in which these people can express themselves and can express support for the security forces and the concept of equality before the law is through a return to some democratic process as soon as possible? Does he realise that what is wanted after the referendum is publication of the White Paper and then some forum in which the majority of the people, who are the reasonable people, can express themselves to him about the future constitution of the country?

Mr. Whitelaw

I note what my hon. and gallant Friend says. It would be right for me simply to note it and to say that Her Majesty's Government are fully aware of the vital importance, besides security action, of a political base for the future. I am bound to say that no White Paper of itself can be a magic wand that will suddenly cure the situation overnight. We in this House have to make sure that we provide the right basis for a new start, a new move forward in Northern Ireland. That is what we must concentrate upon in working out the White Paper.

Mr. Harold Wilson

Quite apart from the deep issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees) and other hon. Members from all parts of the House, and the consciousness of the House as a whole that we may be moving towards very big and possibly grave events, may I ask a different question? Will the right hon. Gentleman use his influence in trying to end what is a continuing practice which many people in this country, on both sides of the water, find increasingly nauseating, namely, the widespread use of the word "Loyalist" to describe people who do not scruple to fire on British troops and to defy every principle of law and order which all decent people on this side of the water and in Northern Ireland hold dear?

Mr. Whitelaw

Everyone who styles himself in any way has a duty to live up to that style. The right hon. Gentleman's words will no doubt be noted by those concerned.